MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

hunger games

Film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson

There’s something rather comforting about the level of anticipation with which Catching Fire has been greeted. Even in this year of tentpole blockbusters, this feels like a unique phenomenon in spite of its obvious Young Adult literary affiliations. For starters, it’s a major release with a female lead, something that almost never happens. Further, it’s not in 3D. News of Catching Fire‘s box office prowess is actually quite delightful, as it shows the appetite (pun unintended) of both the under-served young female audience for thoughtful, fantastical entertainment and the public’s willingness to frequent pictures shot in glorious 2D. Unfortunately however, my positivity for this film may as well end there. There are elements of Catching Fire that I think are laudable, almost all of which are served up within the opening half hour. Thereafter, it descends into such a gargantuan mess that it’s hard to believe I watched the same picture that seems to have critics everywhere foaming at the mouth with astonishment.

Follow-up to last year’s excellent The Hunger Games, Catching Fire picks up more or less where that film left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are now living in the victors’ village in District 12, after their elaborately (and only partially) staged romance enabled them to defy the Capitol and emerge as the first ever joint victors of the Hunger Games. The relative peacefulness of their lives is short-lived however, as they must embark on a Victory Tour of Panem and maintain the charade while President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threateningly looks on. Along the way, they notice signs of dissent and rebellion in the districts, which Snow looks to quash by any means necessary. To this end, he announces that the Quarter Quell and 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games will be marked by the drawing of tributes from among the existing pool of victors. In other words, Katniss and Peeta – who, along with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) are District 12’s only ever victors – must return to the arena once more.

At this stage, it’s worth pointing out the extreme rarity with which any adaptation lives up to its source material. Catching Fire is a particular conundrum, as its book counterpart is widely considered the best in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. Further, the film of The Hunger Games was, while largely praised by critics, not beloved of every fan. However, having watched both these films in a back-to-back marathon this past weekend, I can’t help but feel that the first is not just by far the better adaptation but also a far better film. Where the former was stark and involving, building a beautiful urgency before the games even began, Catching Fire falls apart at the exact moment it should become magnificent. It barely hints at the potential of its source material, wastes key characters, and zips through its major setpiece with such clinical detachment that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching an elaborate episode of Survivor.

The one truly outstanding moment of this film arrives early on, when Katniss and Peeta travel through District 11 and speak before the families of the two fallen tributes, Rue and Thresh. Katniss had tried to protect Rue in the arena, and after some reluctance finally decides to speak to the crowd. Her tearful tribute to the little girl is easily the most heartrending moment of the series so far. The sense of grief and horror at the savagery of the games and their destruction of innocence is vivid and gripping, as is the response when the old man who kickstarts a wave of rebel gestures is torn from the crowds and executed in front of them. In these scenes, the film firmly conveys the paralysing fear that’s at the heart of the Capitol’s death grip over Panem, as well as the emerging strength of the counter-movement. In her revulsion to the execution, we see also Katniss’ growing internal strife. She must play out a lofty romance in order to keep herself and her loved ones safe, but inside she contends with the demands of such a role, something which speaks to her wider status as a symbol of rebellious dissent.

Unfortunately, once the film reaches the Capitol, it swiftly comes undone. The city itself is beautifully presented – authoritative, elegant, and intimidating, it’s far more convincing than the cartoonish metropolis suggested in the previous film. However, the same cannot be said of the arena. The site as described in the book is a monstrous work of staggering complexity, but its scale and brilliance is never established in the film. Whereas the arena in The Hunger Games felt vast and isolating, this one is claustrophobic, with the tributes finding its limit within moments and spending the rest of the time ferrying between a tiny beach and familiar patch of jungle. The various hazards triggered by its clock-like layout are glossed over, depriving them of all sense of peril and excitement. The tributes encounter poisonous fog, killer monkeys, tidal waves, and lightning strikes but these are ticked over with such pedestrian precision that not one actually feels immense or threatening. It feels more like the filmmakers were checking them off a list than investing them in the story, and the woeful special effects employed are further insult.

The characters also, predictably, pay the price of this over-zealous pacing. The games should allow for the fleshing out of personalities such as Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), but the latter hardly figures while the former acts as plot device to rush people between perils. When one character sacrifices herself to save the group, there’s barely a moment’s pause, negating both the weight of her decision and her importance to one other tribute in particular. The actors do manage against this, though some deserved much better. Lawrence and Hutcherson are reliable as the leads, Claflin nails Finnick’s athleticism (if not his charm or physical allure), and Jena Malone is a delightfully aggressive Johanna. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is predictably one of the best things in the film, his deliciously sinister turn as games master Plutarch Heavensbee instantly elevating any scene in which he appears. The standout turn of the piece however is by far Elizabeth Banks’ performance as Effy Trinket. A source of amusement last time, she is here all the more expressive for her restraint, her obvious horror at sending Katniss and Peeta back into the arena infusing the film with more emotional gravitas than either lead can muster. She, too, disappears when the games begin, and while this is a necessary byproduct of the plot a secondary character shouldn’t be so sorely missed.

In many respects, one can’t help but feel that Gary Ross’ approach was much more fitting for Collins’ world. Its grittiness, thoughtfulness, and immersion was far more effective in evoking the dystopian lives of the characters, whereas the disposable entertainment offered here strips the story of its power and resonance. As an adaptation of the book this is extremely poor, but even as a standalone film it lacks the cohesiveness and urgency to really shine. The ridiculously overwrought ending would be a release had what come before not been so grievously disappointing.

SCORE: C

Review written by: Grace Duffy

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  • mariolennox

    Not sure we watched the same movie. I don’t think it was as good as the first one but as someone who did not read the book it was probably B+ material. I think you just have an over lofty idea of what the movie should have been from what your pre-conceived personal notions are. Right or wrong I believe the reason many critics and fans alike love it is because it’s a very good sequel.

  • Mandela Muñoz

    I understand the drawbacks you are referring to from the second half of the film. The first half builds up the emotion and dread beautifully, to be then completely swept aside and we immerse ourselves into a rush-felt, reality show like action scenes that complete undermine the characters. However, I enjoyed the movie precisely because of this. The “survival” mode, let´s keep alive at all cost, no time to reflect on who dies/why is how I think we are truly supposed to experience the horror of the arena. Yes, the SFX where questionable at times, but besides that mayor flaw, the overall tone of the movie is appropriate to what is happening. They could have developed some characters a bit more, but with the limited time they had it would have meant over inflating the film into a 3 hours plus extravaganza.

    As you have pointed out, the second book of the trilogy is considered the best one, so there was little to no expectation to have the second film be on the same level. It just has to deliver other things, like heart felt emotion (Effie is way more developed in the movie than in the book) and the added funny scenes that where not in the books.

    Your review is perfect at pointing out why so many might not like this second installment, specially when you have the original source to compare the movies with. Now i feel I must see Catching Fire again and compare notes!