IN A NUTSHELL
Poor Katniss Everdeen. Along with faux love interest Peeta Mellark, she managed to survive the state-sanctioned horrors of the 74'th Annual Hunger Games. But even after she's granted all the privileges and rights associated with victory she's unable to reconcile her new role as a willing pawn for the totalitarian regime with the destitution and abuse being inflicted on her people.
During her Victory Tour she becomes increasingly willful, inspiring the despotic President Snow to propose a new version of the Hunger Games called the "Quarter Quell". A selection of prior champions, including the hapless Katniss and Peeta, are once again thrown into the field of battle to determine a single winner. But this time secret forces are at work in an attempt to turn our budding heroine into an unwitting symbol for a full-fledged rebellion.
IN THE WHEELHOUSE
Of course, fans of the Suzanne Collins book series will most likely have already seen this several times over. Anyone else who digs lite sci-fi / dystopian future / big event movies will also be predisposed to checking out The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
- Yay, new director! Francis "I Am Legend" Lawrence replaces Gary "Seabiscuit" Ross and the results are pretty noticeable. Even though I Am Legend was downright ass-tacular, at least Lawrence didn't cheat most of the action scenes by resorting to shaky-cams and electron-microscope-style close-ups. And even though this one has a slightly-longer run time it actually feels shorter. This is, in part, due to Lawrence's breezy directorial style and partly because of my next point.
- Introductions are over and now we're down to the real nitty gritty. By threatening to enact a suicide pact at the end of the prior film, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) managed to survive the Games and generate a groundswell of opposition to the barbaric practices of the Capitol. When President Snow (Donald Sutherland) trots them out for a self-serving "Victory Tour" they begin to see just how widespread the uprisings are. Whenever someone in the crowd tries to perform the District 12 Sign to salute the two self-sacrificial "lovers" they're either dragged away, pummeled into submission or shot on sight. Even though our heroes would love to come out in public support of the people, Snow has threatened to execute everyone in their circle. Man, talk about a sticky wicket!
- The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) finally starts to coalesce. In the first film, Peeta's motivations were tough to pin down but now that he's proven his mettle, I can see the dude's appeal. Since they've been through hell and back together it makes sense that Katniss would develop feelings for him. By the same token Gale is a childhood sweetheart and quite noble and heroic in his own right.
- Snow's nasty solution to the surging popularity of Katniss is kinda like Jeopardy's "Tournament of Champions" but with 100% more murder. Even though this "Quarter Quell" doesn't make a lick of sense to this armchair dictator (see "CONS" below), it sure ramps up the film's dramatic tension. Especially when you consider that these Victors have been promised a lifetime of fame, fortune and security if they survive the Games. When they find themselves dragged back onto the field of battle, the resulting rancor and bitterness is downright palpable.
- In addition to its superior pacing and story, Catching Fire also exhibits a considerably sharper visual eye. The special effects used to depict the Capitol, the Roman-esque Chariot Ride / Tribute Parade, the transport hovercraft and the combat grounds are all a lot more convincing this time out.
- There's also some great set design on display here including the slums of District 12, the ghostly "Victor's Village", the Capitol Train car, the Presidential Mansion, the Training Center and the battle site itself.
- The costumes of the Capitol residents are as extravagant as ever but not nearly as inadvertently goofy. Effie Trinket's monarch butterfly frock and Katniss's transformative wedding dress / mockingjay gown are pretty distinctive. This contrasts nicely with the shabby, work-a-day garb worn by the average District-dweller. The stormtrooper-like armor of the incongruously-named "Peacekeepers" is also chillingly effective.
- I'm really glad that these books and films are so popular with young people since, at the very least, it should give them the ability to recognize symptoms of fascism. Keep a checklist handy while watching Catching Fire and count how many real-world parallels you can spot. We've got a growing disparity between the rich upper-class and the working poor, overt pageantry and idolatry, law-enforcement over-reach, Orwellian language, dictatorial powers, info-tainment media distractions and an attempt to convince the average plebe that you can become one of the elite if you just jettison your morals and start doing whatever it takes to get ahead. I only hope that fans realize sooner rather then later that The Hunger Games is only nominally a work of fiction.
- Jennifer Lawrence is forced to endure what amounts to an emotional roller coaster here but she's sure-footed throughout the entire film. Brash and defiant towards Snow's regime, terrified by the prospects of retaliation against her mom and l'il sis and suffering from what amounts to PTSD, the character of Katniss has a lot on her plate here. Not a lot of young actresses could pull off the insight, mental agility and physical demands required to make all of this work but Lawrence is completely self-assured and sympathetic throughout.
- Josh Hutcherson presides over a pretty decent little character arc and even provides a few twists as Peeta. In my review for the first film I described his character as a "milksop" and wanted Katniss to just "snap" and "make his head look like a pincushion". Between the solid scripting and Hutcherson's growing command over the role, I no longer want a heavy object to fall on him such as a safe or a piano. Perhaps this was the intent of Suzanne Collins all along: to have our feelings towards Peeta mirror those of Katniss and evolve as we got to know him. Having said that, I can't escape this overwhelming suspicion that fans of the book are probably reading this and laughing their asses off at me for some reason.
- Peeta occasionally calls Katniss Cat-Nip. Now if Katniss had only referred to Peeta's grade-school crush "Hummus" then things would have been absolutely perfect.
- Just as I predicted, Gale emerges here as a vaguely three-dimensional character and Liam Hemsworth finally gets a chance to do something. Even though he's miles away from the Tribute spotlight he does provide considerable emotional heft for Katniss and also proves to be a stalwart guardian for the downtrodden masses of District 12. The scene where he bull-rushes the cruel and sadistic Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) makes for a great "Hells, yeah!" moment and his resulting punishment is pretty harrowing.
- In a related point, congrats to St. Esprit for making the most out of his limited screen time and delivering a genuinely frightening and unhinged performance.
- As the "damaged veteran" Haymitch Abernathy, Harrelson is no longer a sloppy, flinty, acerbic mess. He's become a highly-functioning alcoholic with his own machinations to deal with. Whether he's dreading a return to the Games, prepping his young charges for battle or revealing a surprisingly deep agenda, Harrelson is pitch-perfect throughout.
- And just as expected, the flighty, audacious and relentlessly-cheerful Effie Trinket seems to be on the cusp of a complete mental breakdown. It's fun to watch the fantastic Elizabeth Banks struggle to keep up appearances during the deja vu District 12 Reaping Ceremony. Effie's close proximity to Katniss and Peeta has put a pretty big hole in her Kool-Aid tumbler. Her best moment comes on the eve of the Quarter Quell when she struggles to present Haymitch and Peeta with their "team symbols" without crying. Given what these token come to symbolize later you can't help but wonder if she's done with the whole rotten edifice.
- There are some great supporting performances on hand as well. Lenny Kravitz is cooly self-assured as the fashion consultant Cinna. As the new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, the greatly-missed and entirely-unreadable Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a very welcome addition to the cast. Stanley Tucci is gloriously obnoxious and vacant as media personality Caesar Flickerman. Donald Sutherland is quietly terrifying as President Coriolanus Snow. Finally Jena Malone makes a real impression as the bitter, shifty and um...body-positive Tribute Johanna Mason. Her elevator scene alone is worth the price of admission.
- As much as Suzanne Collins might wish that Battle Royale doesn't exist, the two are so similar that comparisons are inevitable. In Battle Royale the participants are secretly gassed, they wake up in captivity, they're handed a weapon and then they're told that it's "kill or be killed". There's no time to dwell on morality: their immediate actions are primal and instinctive. In The Hunger Games the Tributes have plenty of time to ponder their predicament. Hell, they're even trained, for Chrissakes. As such, I'm surprised that more Tributes don't struggle with the concept of becoming a state-sponsored murderer and that more of them don't just off themselves. I know that this is probably addressed somewhere in the books but it's petty much glossed over in the films.
- The subtext in Battle Royale is that kids should be culled because they are, by their very nature, rebellious. In The Hunger Games these gladiatorial contests happen to distract the masses and remind citizens of the omnipotent power of the Capital. Which makes Snow's decision to martyr a bunch of honored heroes seem pretty stupid to me. Wouldn't this just piss off more people and galvanize them against the government? At the very least wouldn't everyone be gunning for Katniss because its her fault that they all got dragged back into this mess? Snow needs to take a cue from the real world: the best distractions are the most vapid. If the Capital could only find its own Grumpy Cat, PewDiePie and Kardashians they'd be all set.
- For the most part the action scenes are gritty, realistic and well-shot. That is until the original novel requires the film-makers to break open a barrel of monkeys. As soon as our heroes were attacked by a horde of pissed-off mandrills I was this friggin' close to shouting "Check, please!" and stopping the movie. I'm sure this scene plays out a lot better in the book but in cinematic terms it feels like a deleted pre-vis scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
- Another thing that threatened to eject me out of the film was the ol' "lets-string-this-seemingly-limitless-bolt-of-copper-wire-through-the-jungle-and-electrocute-everyone-in-the-lake-and-on-the-beach" trick. If I was Katniss I probably would have stuck my hand up at that point and asked: "Um, ooookay, so, won't this unjacketed wire with a hundred gigawatts of lightning surging through it also electrocute everything else in this damp-ass rain forest? Like, y'know, us for example?"
THE BOTTOM LINE
Catching Fire is definitely an improvement on the first film. Even though I still maintain that Battle Royale pulls off this scenario more viciously and economically, I still appreciate the in-depth world-building and social commentary on display here. I'm now officially engrossed in The Hunger Games saga and I really wanna see what happens in the last two installments.