Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review: "These games are going to be different"

Reviewed by Andrew Braid


Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Presented in 2D and IMAX

The Hunger Games was a pleasant surprise when I first saw it in theaters, interested by the fervor and cultural zeitgeist surrounding it. It was a (potential) teen franchise starter built on science fiction social commentary, mixed with an aesthetic of gritty realism (courtesy of director Gary Ross) that further contrasted the wealth of the Capitol and the poverty of the Districts. Katniss Everdeen was a character one could really root for, volunteering for a life-and-death reality show competition to save her sister's life when fate proves unkind, a girl struggling to be likable to a fickle public while she was really worrying about if she had what it takes to survive out there when the Games begin. It was a breath of fresh air to see the younger generation embracing a series that actually had some real meat to it, and a female protagonist who wasn't a sexist passive blank slate (you know who I'm talking about), but an actual breathing character.
In other words, I became a fan of The Hunger Games. I've now read all three books, have paid rapt attention to announcements and trailers leading up to the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and have (like everyone) become a huge fan of Oscar-winning lead actress Jennifer Lawrence (or J. Law, as I call her, but never in front of anyone because that would sound stupid). So this time was different. This time there were real expectations.
And those expectations were to be excited, yet also cautious: while the second book by Suzanne Collins was on par with the first, Gary Ross (who had previously directed Seabiscuit and the absolutely wonderful Pleasantville) would not be returning to direct. Watching the bonus features and interviews on the Blu-Ray, one genuinely got the sense that this was a skilled filmmaker and an all-around smart guy. He lent the film a gritty, "shaky-cam" aesthetic that, while disparaged by some, was not done without purpose, and was in fact used to great effect to ground the world into a sense of realism, to put us in Katniss' shoes like the novel did (the problem being that many seem to jump to the conclusion that "shaky-cam" is inherently bad, without stopping to think if there's a genuine, sensible reason for it to be there). He conveyed many character and history details with a subtlety that's uncommon in such Hollywood films, when the norm is to thoroughly spell out whatever you can, whenever you can. He took great pains to ensure that we understood through basic visual terms that the Games were hell, that the murder of children was not something to be glorified or exploited, that they were in fact people (yes the Career tributes were psychotic assholes, but they were people, and some people are psychotic assholes, especially when they're sent to a reality TV death arena). For better or for worse, Gary Ross did understand the kind of tone and approach that The Hunger Games needed to be a good film adaptation.
Above: Gary Ross' artistic intent.
 Well that undermined my point. Anyway...
 Francis Lawrence, our new director for Catching Fire, has a... decent track record (his works include Constantine, I Am Legend and Water for Elephants). He has proven a wholly competent Hollywood director who is capable with action but occasionally stumbles with drama (and for whatever reason his movies always seem to fall short when it comes to CG effects- again, see Constantine and I Am Legend). In other words, I was wary if he could succeed in adaptation and make a sequel that was worthy of the first film and of Ross' work, that it wouldn't suddenly become a glossy, for-hire studio job.
Gladly, I can say succeed he has, as The Hunger Games series manages to pleasantly surprise me once again.
Directly following the aftermath of the first film (BTW, SPOILER WARNING for The Hunger Games), Katniss Everdeen has moved into the Victor's Village back home in coal-mining District 12, trying to find comfort in longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), while avoiding fellow victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in an attempt to dodge the reminders of her post-traumatic stress from the Games. A fateful confrontation with Panem's leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland, now getting to revel in full evil slimeball politician mode) forces Katniss to try to little avail to play by the Capitol books on the Games' Victory Tour in order to subdue uprising and ideas of revolution inspired by her acts of defiance that let both her and Peeta live. She must also keep up appearances with Peeta as "the star-crossed lovers of District 12", going so far as to fake a marriage proposal for the press and public to eat up. But Snow and Katniss both know that it is not enough, and with the help of new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) enacts a plan to eliminate her by revealing the big twist for the 75th Annual Hunger Games (and third Quarter Quell): that the tributes will be selected from the pool of existing victors for each district.
"You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Everdeen. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war?"

The film remains very faithful to the novel, including all but a few choice minor scenes- including my personal favorite bit of backstory, where Katniss and Peeta view an archive taping of their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) when he had won the previous Quarter Quell. What little is taken out proves to be of virtually no detriment to the film adaptation, even allowing for new scenes showing the behind-the-scenes machinations of President Snow and Plutarch (besides, if you cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in your movie, you'd better give him more than the 2 or so scenes his character had in the book). Despite the 2 1/2 hour running time the film keeps you raptly in attention despite spending at least 90 or so of those minutes on setup, world-building and character development. Lawrence's direction proves skilled and bigger in scale, nixing any semblance of shaky-cam while still making the world of Panem feel like the one we were introduced to a year before. There are some truly spectacular shots in this film- Katniss looking through the back window of a Capitol train, overhead cityscape shots of the Quarter Quell tribute parade, Katniss peering overhead from a gargantuan tropical tree. Yet none of this boost in production value ends up sacrificing the series' themes and intent, and the emotional moments hit hard without feeling overplayed. The film even fits in some nice touches of humor, mostly taken directly from the book, making it flow through naturally as bits of calm before things start hitting the fan.
"Chins up, smiles on!"

An excellent cast anchors much of the film, from returning players Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks to newcomers Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Sam Clafin (who assuages any doubts about his ability to portray Finnick the second he comes onscreen- this is a far cry from his bland, forgettable roles in  Pirates 4 and Snow White and the Huntsman). My personal favorite new addition has to be Jena Malone (best known from *sigh* Sucker Punch) as former District 7 victor Johanna Mason: all brash, no f***s given rebellious attitude and unhinged killer's instinct. But like the first film, the screen belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, proving yet again why she has so quickly risen to beloved status in Hollywood. She commands the screen, letting us see the simmering pain, emotional masking, underlying confusion, determination, and finally courage that drives Katniss (all without the benefit of the book's first-person perspective to do that work for us). She deserves every one of those thousands of "Reasons Why Jennifer Lawrence is Awesome" lists continuously flooding the internet on a daily basis (come on, I know you've stumbled across at least one).
Seriously, she rules.

The focus of the film shifts away from the more single-minded focus on the Games themselves that the first movie had. Instead Catching Fire opts for a much larger focus on Panem's political machinations and Capitol social satire, all while keeping Katniss' precarious media juggling act and internal struggles at its core. One aspect that remains surprisingly toned down once again is the much-ballyhooed love triangle, the appeal of which (and one's level of disappointment with its more subdued presence here) will undoubtedly vary. It is doubly curious to play it down considering its clearly rising prominence in the book (which reaches peak levels in Mockingjay), and that it is undeniably a major selling point for many fans of the books. Mostly just hinting at it in the first film made sense, since the first book wasn't all that focused on it either, but the continued downplay speaks to the film versions' borderline indifference regarding Katniss trying to decide which cute teenage boy she likes. It's as if the filmmakers want to avoid as many Twilight comparisons as possible (and likely to try and broaden the base appeal beyond teenage girls by cutting down on all the "icky romance stuff"). Personally this doesn't prove to be of any serious detriment to the film adaptation, but by the final third the film feels like it's almost totally forgotten until the last second to remind us "oh yeah, there's more than one guy she's into".
Even they don't seem that interested in their own love triangle.

The film builds wonderfully to a big, epic-scale tropical arena duel, shot entirely with IMAX cameras, with bigger and better direction on the action front. Visually it's awesome to behold... and yet I still found myself liking the Games sequences of the first movie more. Don't get me wrong, Catching Fire's big third act is certainly good, but while it's an improvement superficially it lacks the more immediate personal stakes of the prior arena battles. While the Gamemaker-controlled environmental dangers were established and used at specific points in the first film's Games, here they end up supplanting the actual combatants as the major threats that Katniss and friends must face. And because the film versions don't allow for the first-person perspective of Katniss like the book had, it leads to a lack of personal human grounding to the action, at least when compared to its predecessor. It's easier to feel Katniss' fear and struggle for her life when she's running from bloodthirsty teen psychopaths than when she's running from poison fog and violent baboons. It's not something I can really blame on the filmmakers, but rather something that's just difficult to adapt as effectively to the screen when you're working so hard to remain faithful to the page. It all leads into a cliffhanger ending that effectively retains the gut punch reaction it had in the book, but will probably still off-put people averse to such "to be continued" endings in general. Then again, some of these people don't like the ending of Empire Strikes Back, without ever realizing just how perfect and appropriate an ending it really is for that film, and dislike cliffhangers pretty much just because. So, you know, don't listen to those people.
Like the first film, Catching Fire manages to surprise once again, proving its behind the scenes changes to be smart ones that will undoubtedly benefit Mockingjay Part 1 and 2 going forward (Lawrence will be returning to direct). More importantly it proves to be a sequel that effectively matches the original, even improving on it in multiple ways (particularly in visual scale and effects). It leaves one wishing more teen lit franchises could be as genuinely smart and engaging as this. Besides, it's not like teens are going to want to read 1984 anymore. I mean come on, it doesn't even have a love triangle in it!

Final Score: 8.5/10

+ Excellent cast, with great new additions like Hoffman, Sam Clafin and Jena Malone
+ Keeps tone with the first film: bigger scale and new director, yet the world still feels familiar
+ Faithful to the source material, with great new additions that add to political intrigue
+ Excellent buildup, with strong emotional beats and touches of humor
+ Jennifer Lawrence rocks FTW! (sorry, rather unprofessional of me... it's true though)
- Big action-driven third act is good, not great
- Seems rather disinterested in its own developing love triangle
- Cliffhanger ending may irk some
- It does cut out one of my favorite backstory bits from the book (though I understand why)