The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ReviewDecember 3, 2013
Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment made a gamble last year when they decided to produce Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games into a Hollywood blockbuster. While it certainly was not the greatest film released in 2012, it was a financial success. Now that it has made its mark on popular culture, the book-to-film franchise is making another attempt at impressing its audience and raking in millions of dollars with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. With a new director and writing team of two Academy Award winners, can this sequel prove that The Hunger Games franchise deserves to stay?
Some time has passed since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Hunger Games. On the day they are scheduled to begin their victory tour across the totalitarian nation of Panem, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) visits Katniss and informs her that their victory has inspired some of the other 12 districts of Panem to incite rebellion. He then warns her that if the two fail at convincing Panem that love was the reason for their actions at the end of said games, their lives and their families’ would be in grave danger. As each district continually grows distrustful of Katniss and Peeta’s ruse, tension rises and Snow and the Capitol fight back against the rebellious citizens. Only one question remains: what will become of Panem as the uprising mounts, and how will the 75th Hunger Games affect such events?
Now, understand that I did enjoy the first Hunger Games film, and I also loved the books – that last point will be irrelevant for this review, though. However, I recognize that it has plenty of problems that keep it from being a great film. While The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has problems of its own, it is most certainly improves on the key issues of the first film. The writing from Oscar winners Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy is strong, for lines meant to emphasize societal issues are all rich in potency, while the characters are generally well-rounded. In that sense, on top of having a compelling story, Catching Fire excels for capitalizing on elements from the original film. This mainly relates to the social commentary, for such comments on television, celebrity vanity and wealth are integrated into the narrative so seamlessly that they add the proper thematic heft to the picture.
On another note, the story’s love triangle and Katniss’ internal conflict are well-realized. Catching Fire’s problems all relate to the overall narrative: for example, the final act may be fun and exciting, but it does not have quite the realism and hard drama of what preceded it. Also, one can truly feel the length of this picture as it continues on, while the abrupt ending is the worst-structured cliffhanger since Halo 2. For what it’s worth, though, Catching Fire is a great story regardless of its problems.
A strength of this franchise is its cast, that’s for certain. Jennifer Lawrence once again gives a tour de force, multi-layered performance that not only perfectly conveys her character’s emotional instability, there is a degree of ambiguity that exists in her eyes. You are unsure of what she might be thinking at some points, but her performance certainly has the power to make one consider what is driving her thoughts and actions. When the big emotional moments come, they hit hard, especially in a scene in which both her and Josh Hutcherson’s character are separated by an impenetrable barrier.
Speaking of which, Hutcherson is better here, and the chemistry between him and Lawrence is stronger. Like its predecessor, Catching Fire benefits from the supporting cast, which is certainly expanded from the original. Returning cast members such as Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz all hit their respective marks, while the newcomers are also effective here. Sam Claflin is charming as District 4 tribute Finnick Odair, while the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman shines as gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee whenever he is on screen. It just goes to show that a well-rounded cast can elevate material to greater heights.
If there is anything that has most noticeably improved from the previous film, it’s the visuals. The director Francis Lawrence refrains from using shaky camera work, so for one thing the action scenes are comprehensible. They are also fluid and thrilling, making for a solid action film amidst the drama. The budget has also markedly improved, for the CGI is cleaner while the cinematography is brighter and crisply filmed. While the fictional world still hasn’t been fully realized, at least the art design is good enough to emphasize that the world of The Hunger Games could potentially exist. James Newton Howard’s music is solid once again, even if it is not the most memorable score. I have always enjoyed his music, and here he certainly does well to place an emotional undercurrent into the film.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one of the more successful blockbusters released this year. While it has its problems, it triumphs with its stellar cast, improved visuals, great storytelling and profound parallels to current issues. And although this does not matter as much to me personally – films and books are not the same thing – I can guarantee that fans of the novels will also be satisfied. Catching Fire capitalize on its predecessor’s untapped potential, so in that way the film is comparable to sequels like The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. Time will only tell if Mockingjay will close out the series on a high note, considering that it will be split into two parts (gag).