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MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Sluggishly paced, taking few chances and not nearly as engaging as it should be, the second installment of the popular trilogy still maintains enough interest to be enjoyable, thanks in large part to interesting supporting characters and a more in-depth look at the world that can host such sport.


SYNOPSIS: Hunger Games survivors Katniss and Peeta find themselves once again in a battle to the death, this time with other Hunger Games winners.

PROS: Mostly good performances from leads Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, with solid secondary performances by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer; interesting glimpses of the world outside of District 12 and the Capitol.
CONS: Bland and uninteresting turns by many of the recurring characters, including hammy performances by villains Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman; sluggish, faltering beginning that never fully allows the movie to gain its footing; only fitfully suspenseful; routine screenplay and obvious direction; heavy-handed treatment of themes and ideas.

When last we left District 12 denizens Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), they both “won” the Hunger Games (I’m assuming this is not a spoiler since it is where the first movie begins) by preparing to sacrifice themselves by eating poisonous berries, thus sparing themselves and the government of the Panem embarrassment.  But it creates problems for both themselves and the government led by the amusingly power-mad President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland, as obviously evil as Star Wars’s Emperor Palpatine, but lacking that character’s subtlety or nuance).  Oddly, it also poses a challenge to the viewer of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as well.  The first movie wallowed through its setup but finally found its footing once the games actually began.  And, unfortunately, this sequel, directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, follows the same pattern, only too much more so before the games begin, and far too little once the starting gun sounds.

Part of the problem posed is how to translate the novels themselves to the screen.  Suzanne Collins wrote her post-apocalyptic trilogy for a young adult audience, so an adaptation aimed at the readership of the series must not be too grim or dour, lest its subject matter alienate the very audience the books courted.  The screenplay must flense its subject matter and subtext of too much complexity so as not to lose those who might be turned off by a genuine dialogue of the nature of power, media, and revolution.  And the director must massage the medium to keep too much of the faux artistry he brought to Constantine and Water for Elephants at bay yet perhaps provide more visual interest than Gary Ross did in the first one.  It perhaps guarantees The Hunger Games: Catching Fire receives a warmer reception—somehow it strikes me as odd that parents would take their children to a picture about the Machiavellian, media-saturated future posited—but at the cost of what a genuinely gritty picture it could have been.

Consider the setup itself.  As the movie opens, Katniss, tired of living a life that requires her to shun her boyfriend Liam (Gale Hawthorne) in order to present to Panem the belief that she and Peeta have found true love on the battlefield, receives a visit from President Snow, who informs her that she must continue the fabrication or put her sister Prim’s (Willow Shields) life, and the life of her family, in danger.  She of course agrees, however reluctantly, but cannot help going off script during their victory lap.  As she and Peeta visit District 11, she puts aside the given script and voices what she genuinely feels, which causes one of District 11’s citizens to give her District 12’s three-fingered salute.  She screams as she is dragged off stage and Peacekeepers shoot dead the man who gave her the salute.  Lawrence puts everything she can into her performance here, yet the entire scene feels muted, as if wrapped in gauze.

Snow, of course, cannot abide such insubordination, so, in plan with gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee suggests a means of eliminating her once and for all, without the ugliness of merely shooting her in cold blood: change the rules of the 75th Hunger Games so that the contestants will be reaped from the existing pool of victors.  Naturally, Peeta and Katniss, whose betrothals meet with much audience interest but little government sympathy, are chosen for District 12, which means they must once again train for battle.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire introduces new characters.  There is District 7’s Johanna Mason, who takes great delight in stripping from her tree costume in front of Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) after the inauguration of the 75th Hunger Games.  Jena Malone plays her as a kind of self-knowing film noir vamp, just this side of camp.  There is Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, a tech wizard who helps the group figure out how best to sidestep the Games’s more lethal challenges.  And there is Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin) from District 4, a cocky and self-assured young man who appears to offer additional romantic complication to Katniss’s already complicated love life.  They breathe much-needed life into the material—life that saps regulars Lenny Kravitz, Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci of the energy they brought to the first picture.

After the battles, the traps (one ingenious one involves a fog that burns the contestants’s skins), and the alliances, the movies screeches to a halt in true Empire Strikes Back and Matrix Reloaded fashion, making way for the inevitable conclusion, complete with revelations and reversals.  It means, though, that the movie is only partly finished, and does not stand on its own.  Here’s hoping the last installment (broken into two parts, I’m guessing) brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion—or at least that it genuinely catches the fire that this entry, unfortunately, quickly put out.

11 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

  1. Let’s see…kids are being forced to butcher one another for the televised entertainment of a decadent elite and as a viewer I’m supposed to care one whit about Katniss’s love life? That aspect of the story (along with the sanitized violence and the fact that none of the so called “hungry” looked like they had missed too many sandwiches) totally turned me off on the first THG movie. Walking out of the theater, all I could think was that I couldn’t believe they were dragging this ridiculously superficial story out for two more grueling movies.

    I’ve always enjoyed good dystopian fiction, but the massive popularity of THG has completely left me at the station.

    • Nick Sharps // November 24, 2013 at 8:19 am //

      You and me both. There are a lot of great YA stories that deal with similar themes in a mature and powerful way. I guess the only way to explain the success of such a shallow series is that people liked Twilight just fine.

      • Pat Forsythe // November 24, 2013 at 10:50 am //

        Nick, please name some of those novels you liked better. I actually enjoyed all of the Hunger Games novels, so if there are better out there, I’d love to read them.

      • Noooooooo, Nick. I actually mildly enjoyed Twilight when I read it, it was a mindless escape, especially after most of the usual stuff I read, and I don’t mean that in a bad way:) I consider myself pretty sharp, and not at all shallow, so careful there…

  2. Hmmm…well, I’m not ashamed to say that I saw Catching Fire Saturday night and absolutely loved it 😀 I don’t get to go to a lot of movies since I have small kids, but I was really glad I got to see it on the big screen and am sorry that I’ll have to wait for the next. I was thoroughly entertained, and frankly, that’s the most important thing for me when it comes to movies!

  3. And Nick, I love ya, darlin, but shallow is not a word that I would use to describe this series. Catching Fire even went so far as to pretty frankly depict the PTSD that most people would be suffering after something like the Hunger Games…:)

  4. Always entertaining to read these reviews, especially given that I’m generally on the completely opposite end of the spectrum 95% of the time. We all have our own opinions, that is for sure.

    I was ambivalent about the first film. I thought it was okay but for me didn’t have the emotional connection the story needed. But I will admit I had some preconceptions about not liking it. Catching Fire, however, hooked me right from the beginning and kept my attention the whole time. I felt the performances were very good and thought the writers/actors did a really nice job in getting their emotional hooks in me.

    I haven’t read the books so this is my sole experience with the story, and I’m now very interested in seeing the next two films.

    • Catching Fire did have a lot more emotional impact for me and I thought they did a great job of depicting the violence without being gratuitous. I read the books quiet a while back, so everything is actually pretty fresh for me,which is nice.

      • I agree, I’m happy the violence is not gratuitous. It doesn’t need to be, simply the idea of it is horrifying enough.

        I’m also not sure I agree with the comment above about caring for someone’s “love life”. I think the films have done a nice job of showing that this is not particularly what Katniss is interested in either. She isn’t particularly head over heels for Gayle or for Peeta but has instead focused her energy on protecting her family and not opening herself up for other deeper relationships, something that is now starting to happen. It seems very normal to me that in the midst of any kind of hell people would be seeking a deeper connection with someone to share the pain/gain some momentary pleasure/etc.

        • I’m in agreement with you there. It’s certainly not an overplayed part of the story and is actually quite complicated. She certainly cares for both Peeta and Gayle, and under the circumstances, anyone might become confused and conflicted. Peeta’s devotion to Katniss seems complete, and rather heartbreaking under the circumstances.

        • Sanitizing violence desensitizes people to it. If you’re going to make a moving showing kids slaughtering one another in gruesome ways, you should be honest enough to show the consequences of that violence on the screen. Otherwise, all you have is yet another big, dumb action movie with a slightly more disturbing premise than usual.

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