Friday, November 29, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Theatrical Review)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, 146 minutes
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Amanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright and Lenny Kravitz

My review of The Hunger Games was a little negative due to the weak acting of the supporting cast, but that's vastly improved in Catching Fire. Director Francis Lawrence, who impressed me with I Am Legend, replaces Gary Ross, and I'm happy with the result. Lawrence will also direct the final two installments.

As in the opening movie, Jennifer Lawrence is the key ingredient. Remove her from the project and it just wouldn't be as good. She rightly received an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, and has to show a whole range of emotions in Catching Fire. You'll see what I mean during the opening scene in which she has a flashback to events we witnessed in the previous movie. If I had to list the most promising actresses under the age of 30, Lawrence would clearly be right at the top. In fact, there are few actresses of any generation that I would rather watch.

For the purposes of this review, I'm going to assume that you have seen the first installment. If you haven't, don't attempt to see Catching Fire before you know how the story begins. You'll miss some of the references for sure.

We learned in The Hunger Games that victorious tributes could look forward to a better life. Hunger and poverty were supposed to be a thing of the past, and the fear of being asked to fight for survival could be removed forever. But it wouldn't be much of a sequel if Katniss just rode around waving to the crowds, would it? President Snow (Sutherland) devises a scheme to get her in a new battle, only this time it's bigger and better than ever. Without giving away too much, let's just say that there are no tributes that are easy to kill in this sequel; those involved are generally older and more experienced.

The different tributes aren't the only characters who are new to Catching Fire. Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and his questionable facial hair has been replaced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Hoffman gives a typical multifaceted performance, and the motivations of his character are hard to guess. During a conversation with Katniss, he claims to have volunteered for the position of Head Gamemaker, even though the life expectancy is not great. Does that mean that Seneca Crane wasn't the only one who was punished for disappointing President Snow in the past? Have other tributes caused trouble for Snow?

The main difference between this sequel and the first installment is the depth of story and the quality of the acting. We learn a lot more about Katniss. Who does she love, and to what degree? What sacrifices must she make in her life to fit in and protect the people she loves. If you think about it, we all do similar things in our own lives. We socialize for the sake of our families or our careers, when a lot of the time we would rather spend our free moments pursuing things that we enjoy. Many of us give up things for our children or ailing relatives. We can identify with Katniss, even though we won't be asked to fight to the death. As for the acting, Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and others, give the characters more depth than in the first movie. We are also given more information about Haymitch (Harrelson) and Effie (Banks). I wonder how much of this is due to Simon Beaufoy's part in the screenplay? He's on a roll after writing Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

One of the best scenes comes early in the movie as Katniss and Peeta deviate from their prepared agenda during a tour of the other districts. Instead of mouthing the carefully prepared scripts, they choose to make a more meaningful contribution. I won't reveal what happens, but it's a memorable scene.

The Capitol is portrayed as being particularly evil in this sequel, just in case you were in any doubt. Its dubious agenda is enforced by stormtroopers who look like they stepped straight out of Star Wars. Although some of the first 90 minutes is fairly predictable fare, I welcomed the chance to explore this world and its characters in more depth. It's hard to care about someone if you don't understand who they are, or what they are fighting for. Francis Lawrence did a great job of avoiding clumsy exposition in I Am Legend, and he avoids that trap in Catching Fire too. Instead of spelling out the reason for every little action, he allows scenes to naturally unfold so that we can see their significance for ourselves.

Fans of action might be disappointed with Catching Fire. It takes a long time for the tributes to make it into the arena, and once there, they rely more on alliances than before. This story is more about teamwork and figuring out who is good or evil than it is about slaughtering everyone in sight. It's a richer story overall.

Another reason for disappointment might be the abrupt ending. Like The Lord of the Rings, the story is split into several parts, and this second installment of four won't have a conclusion that neatly resolves all of the conflict. For that, you'll need to see the next two movies.

I think that Francis Lawrence has improved upon the first installment significantly, and I'll be seeing how things pan out. I might even read Suzanne Collins' trilogy before I see Mockingjay Part 1 next year.

Overall score 4/5

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  1. Good review Steve. While it's definitely not my favorite compared to the first, it still has its moments of pure interest, where I actually do care what happens, and to whom.

    1. Thanks Dan. Sequels are tricky because we have already experienced the world and want something bigger and better. I thought this was one of the better sequels I have seen.

  2. Great review, Steve. Glad to see we're on the same page on this one.

    1. Thanks Fernando. I'm looking forward to the other two movies.

  3. Great review, but I have to disagree with you. I found Catching Fire to be far worse than the first film. I found it extremely boring and way too long. This story was far more exciting on paper than on film. My biggest problem is the complete lack of chemistry between Lawrence, Hutcherson, and Henderson.

    1. A couple of people I work with found it a long wait for anything meaningful to happen, so you are not alone. Imagine what the next two will be like. I hope it's not just padding like The Hobbit.