A significant uptick over the first Hunger Games in terms of pacing and filmmaking style – though not necessarily story – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire represents a more-than-solid entry in the post-apocalyptic young adult franchise based on the bestselling novels by Suzanne Collins.
This is the middle entry in Collins’ trilogy (though the third novel, Mockingjay, will be released as two films – cashing in a la Deathly Hallows or Breaking Dawn) and feels it, though it does so in the best-possible Empire Strikes Back/Two Towers/Dark Knight manner: themes are enriched, characters further developed, and we’re left with a cliffhanger finale that leaves us wanting more.
Even if the story is, more or less, exactly the same as last time around. Next time, we imagine, they’ll have to change things up.
Catching Fire is also given a major boost by some behind-the-scenes changes: chief among those is Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants), who replaces Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) in the director’s chair.
While Ross expertly captured a melancholy mood that set the tone for this dystopian view of future society, he let an excellent B-movie plot slip right through his fingers; the pacing, especially in the first half, was all over the map. Lawrence doesn’t seem to bring much to the table in this sequel, but he’s smart enough not to let style get in the way: this is one story that tells itself just fine. While Catching Fire is actually a few minutes longer than the first film, it feels significantly shorter.
But the worst aspect of The Hunger Games was the nauseating camerawork and editing: every herky-jerky shot and sequence seemed to be designed to disorient the viewer. I’m thrilled to report that’s all been ditched here, with cinematographer Jo Willems (Limitless, 30 Days of Night) replacing Tom Stern, and editor Alan Edward Bell (The Amazing Spider-Man) taking over the editing reigns.
In front of the camera, it’s more of the same, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) now on tour after surviving the last Hunger Games – a Battle Royale/Running Man-type reality “show” that pits 24 children against each other in a battle to the death designed to keep the 12 districts of the future USA in line.
But Katniss and Peeta found a way to beat the system – a Romeo & Juliet romance that saw the pair driven to commit suicide rather than be without each other – and audiences demanded to see them both survive. I loved the self-knowing social commentary here: you’ll never see another mainstream Romeo & Juliet because it won’t test well with audiences. That includes the first novel/film, which could have ended perfectly in a double-suicide that drove the districts to revolution (the franchising possibilities, admittedly, would have been limited).
Of course, it was all a show, at least for Katniss, whose true love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) was waiting for her back in District 12. Or is it just a show? Through two films now, Hemsworth’s charmless character stands by the sidelines while Peeta – just about the nicest guy in the world – expresses his undying love. Thankfully, the predictable love triangle aspect has been a relatively minor focus.
More emphasis is placed on the Games themselves, now in their 75th year: a special occasion that allows President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new “games master” Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to conspire against Katniss and Peeta and crush any sense of growing rebellion amongst the Districts. In these Games, the contestants (tributes) will be made up of past victors; surely, Katniss and Peeta won’t both survive this time around.
The other past victors victors include the brainy Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), the sympathetic Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), and the pissed-off Johanna (Jena Malone), who team with Katniss and Peeta to take on some deadly rivals. They join a colorful returning supporting cast that includes a dazzling Elizabeth Banks as escort Effie Trinket, Woody Harrelson as mentor Haymitch Abernathy, Lenny Kravitz as designer Cinna, and Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones as a pair of TV personalities.
Minor annoyance: what’s up with all these second-rate Dickens character names? Plutarch Heavensbee? Really?
Larger annoyance: the game makers’ interference in the Games. Last time around they were throwing fireballs at the contestants; here Plutarch creates a whirlwind that seems to directly result in the deaths of two of them. What’s with that? All the setup and rules that go into the Games, and they’re just going to play God?
Still, that didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of Catching Fire, a perfectly-realized piece of blockbuster entertainment that remains entertaining – in and out of the jungle – for a full 2.5 hours. It’s never rushed – taking its time to properly develop story and character – but never boring: simply a good story told well. In that respect, it reminded me a lot of the superb work being done on TV in series like Game of Thrones. Too bad we’ll have to wait till next year for a subsequent entry.