Despite its many flaws, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire comes together to become quite the nice little package. There are so many things built into the narrative and the production that are poised to foil many of the best efforts of fantastic actors and amazing screenwriters, but the second in the book-to-film franchise pulls off many of its ambitions with deft moves.
In the follow-up to the 2012 big screen adaptation of The Hunger Games, we track the continuing story of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark as they return from the 74th Hunger Games as victors despite some foul play and bending of the rules. Their relationship remains ill-defined as Liam Hemsworth’s chiseled Gale Hawthorne back home in District 12 lingers about as her townie beau.
Mentor and past victor Haymitch Abernathy drunkenly lives about between Katniss and Peeta’s upgraded homes, all of them awaiting the upcoming tours, a regular event where victors boast the virtues of the Capitol. That is until President Coriolanus Snow comes by demanding that Katniss set things right by being his puppet.
As you can probably guess by the trailers, things don’t go very well and the pair end up in the 75th Hunger Games despite already surviving their systematic crucible the first time around. This was my primary concern, having not read the books or remembering much of the first movie, that the reason they get dragged back into the arena would be heavily contrived. Were they not entitled to a life free from questionable morals and sharp arrows?
It seems that either books author Suzanne Collins or screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (with his impressive résumé of Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and Michael Arndt (with a similarly astounding background of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3) took that into account and one of the first moments of the movie spends upwards of seven minutes explaining the reason this tension between Snow and Katniss exists, and then again later in the movie to layout why it’s justified they have to fight once more.
The thing is, though, that it sets up more than it waves away and it all most pays off handsomely. Catching Fire is a thematically interesting movie even though it may not be all that consistent (which we’ll get to in a second). It primarily addresses the conflict of authority versus independence—of oppression against free will—and it does so fantastically. Every time Katniss and Snow butt heads, we are reminded exactly of the feeling we get when we are turned down, dismissively brushed aside with a silent and implicit non-reason of “because I said so.”
And then when we see crisis hit home and beyond, we are forced to think on the meta narrative of self versus community, a theme that plays both with and against the one of fighting a system. It’s a cognitive opposition that introduces wrinkles into our head while adding drama to the story, pulling double duty without throwing in unnecessary complications. And of course we have the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, which manages to get between delivered love, earned love, and sacrificial love rather handily.
The problem is that most of this drama is front-loaded. It’s a structure that works rather well for a book; the narration can make a conversation as tense as a battle scene. But in a movie, it comes across as a hard swing from talking to killing. It’s so drastic while being expected that it feels unnatural and almost unwelcome, though the change of pace is quite nice. We get all the drama in the first hour and then a bunch of dead people in the second hour and twists in the final minutes. If not for the pedigree and talent of the screenwriters, I doubt it would have worked.
Topping off the pile of goodness is the acting. There are some real duds in there, of course (*cough*Lenny Kravitz*cough*), but there are some particular pairings that carrying substantial heft, some of which is surprising. Jennifer Lawrence is, as you would expect, stellar. There is a scene in an elevator with Peeta and Johanna Mason in which Lawrence manages to exude such an astounding range of facial expressions and emotions that you would think she was teaching a master class instead of acting a teen film adaptation.
And when she pairs up with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, it is exemplary. They really know how to play off each other’s stacked-up character traits and make a scene (or even a quick glance) incredibly dramatic. More surprisingly is when Lawrence shares a scene with Hemsworth. He is able to convey strength alongside vulnerability with a handful of determination in an instant. And of course can you expect anything besides a great time with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, and Woody Harrelson?
All of that great (and bad) acting, though, serves to distract from problems with the story. Or perhaps not problems, but things left unattended to that were most likely drawn out to satisfaction in the book. There’s a hard-ass Peacekeeper marshal that seemingly leaves just as quickly as he arrives to no other point or purpose than to gin up some sparks. And then the twist is only half alluded to throughout the movie while the rest is confusingly either too heavy-handed or too subtle to be proper foreshadowing. You can see the ending from a mile away, but you’re not sure why.
And this may be just a personal quibble, but the production design of the film is still terrible. It feels like the baseline or first draft interpretation of Bizarro world opulence and poverty. Oh, poor people? Let’s just put them in denim that is mysteriously pristine. Oh, rich people? Let’s make them wear colorful, gaudy garb that looks like it was made specifically for a movie. It all feels so far from authentic that wax-covered posters at Madame Tussauds would be more convincing. There were also moments when you could tell someone’s reach exceeded his grasp as ambitious shots came across as cloying.
I’m not a fan of The Hunger Games. I barely could remember what that three-finger salute was that people were getting beaten over meant. But I do think The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a good film. Its singular problems are great and obvious, and yet its gestalt comes together to be something worthwhile. If it can make a casual observer lean in, anticipating dramatic payoff, and a diehard fan to my left cry somewhere around four to six times, then this movie is definitely doing something right.
+ Many of the leads produce some fantastic performances
+ Carries a thematic complexity that was largely unexpected but very welcome
+ Payoff trumps contrivances to a satisfactory conclusion/cliffhanger
– The unorthodox, bifurcated structure is also a weak one
– Production design feels disingenuous and ham-fisted
Final Score: 8 out of 10