The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Review)

DIRECTOR: Francis Lawrencehunger_games_catching_fire_ver32_xlg

CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Lynn Cohen, Amanda Plummer, Willow Shields

RUNNING TIME: 146 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: After their joint victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) continue to inspire revolution in the impoverished Districts as the 75th year re-introduces the “Quarter Quells” with older, experienced killers…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Not since perhaps Star Wars or Lord of the Rings has a major studio franchise ever been looked upon with such respect as The Hunger Games now does. A successful introduction with Gary Ross’ film last year – though one does admit it is slightly flawed, especially with its nauseating use of the shaky-cam – has established the dark, dystopian world that Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark et al reside in just as George Lucas and Peter Jackson’s respective films A New Hope and Fellowship of the Ring did.

But now, it is down to new director Francis Lawrence to not only expand the world of Panem in its superior, firmer follow-up Catching Fire but also up the drama, up the action and, above all, up the story and how it is told. Lawrence more than delivers on this promise, resulting in one of the most impressive franchise films in recent years and certainly one of the strongest sequels in a year full of them.

Any comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight – the former especially – are entirely justified. Though there may be no shock reveal of certain characters’ parentage here, the tone of “bigger, better, darker” is unmistakable and works to better-than-expected lengths. As we see to effective lengths, things are starting to get rougher within the impoverished Districts, as ruled over by the totalitarian Capitol led by the ruthless President Snow (a chillingly calm Donald Sutherland). People are shot in the head when they give a sign of respect to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence); Snow blackmails Everdeen in an early scene by way of reference to her family and close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth); and, in one brutal sequence, forces led by an aggressive, Clint Eastwood-growling “Peacekeeper” (Patrick St. Esprit) destroy an entire market, publically whip Gale when he tries to defend citizens, assault Katniss, and enstrict a harsh curfew on penalty of being shot on sight. Pardon our language, but what a load of dick-holes.

But do not deny that you’re thinking this too when you’re watching or even envisioning it. It makes us root for the heroes to succeed all the more, rising above this cruelty and kicking it where it hurts once and for all. This darker overlook of events makes things more intimidating and stimulating to watch than last time, and it works extremely well.

Speaking of heroes, Jennifer Lawrence is once more front and centre as Katniss proving yet again that her rise to glory within the industry is not just a fluke. Unlike other young performers who got well-known just for being in popular franchises, Lawrence actually tries her damnedest to give a multi-layered and complex, yet still heroic and likable, character even more meat on the bones and by all accounts she succeeds. Always captivating to watch, always engaged with the character and environments she is placed in, she dominates the movie as one of the best leads – not “female leads”; LEAD – in a blockbuster movie series in eons. Such a strong protagonist would make it easier for the supporting players to falter, but luckily they remain just as committed. Josh Hutcherson, as Katniss’ acquaintance/fake lover Peeta, feels more grown into his role this time round and has some recognisable strengths that overshadow his more whiny moments from the first film; there’s a sense his character has grown up in reaction to his experiences in the last film, and Hutcherson does great work. The weaker of the three leads is perhaps Hemsworth; while he definitely has hints of charisma and is nowhere near a bad actor – mediocre at worst – he doesn’t quite leave as much of an impression as Lawrence and Hutcherson do. Again, he’s not terrible or even bad, just not as strong. Other returning faces such as Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks also leave their mark – Banks’ campy Lady Gaga-esque Effie in particular surprises in one late scene – and prove their own stance against the younger stars.

In addition, we get a whole host of new faces to play around with. One of the most unexpected additions to the cast is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who post-Oscar you’d think wouldn’t want to be near such a project, but he’s completely fine in the role of new Gameskeeper Plutarch Heavensbee. Perhaps a little bland of a character, but then again we don’t know a great deal about him just yet (after all, there are two more movies to expand on his character). Among the new line of Tributes for the commemorative “Quarter Quells” version of the Hunger Games are Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer who are rather adorable together as eccentric couple Peetee and Wiress; and Lynn Cohen deserves mention as a mute elder woman names Mags who never says a word yet leaves a great emotional imprint. The newer characters who this reviewer enjoyed the most, however, were Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason, played by Sam Clafin and Jena Malone respectively. When we first see him, our initial reaction is “Oh boy, he’s going to be the self-centred prissy boy, only out for himself, yadda yadda”, and judging by the first scene between him and Katniss it certainly looks like it’s headed down that direction. Once the Games begin, however, it turns out to be a different story. We won’t say why or what, but it’s a positive turn for someone who could have easily been just stock and boring. Malone is also a lot of fun as a cynical Tribute whose anger and pessimism allows for some great character moments. Her introductory scene, wherein she strips naked in a lift to Katniss’ awkward (and hilarious) facial reaction, is one of the lighter moments but Malone sells it well enough to somehow like a person we should probably hate.

That’s the talent in front of the camera, but those working behind it need some love too. Taking over the directing reigns, F. Lawrence has more of a grasp than Ross did with every scene playing out for as long as they needed to be without ever feeling long-winded or unnecessary. From the opening shots onwards – set on a frosty sunrise in the forest – we can already tell that everything has been aggrandised from the cinematography to the atmosphere, and Lawrence makes it all work from his director’s chair. While we’re on the subject of cinematography, we should mention what you’re all anxious to hear be confirmed: yes, the shaky-cam element has been all but removed from this sequel. It’s still present, but it’s really dialled down this time and we can actually see what is going on in the action scenes instead of the result of a cameraman suddenly developing Parkinson’s disease.

But what makes Catching Fire stand out, as did Suzanne Collins’ source material of which this entire series is based, is its storytelling and social commentary. Even if you haven’t read Collins’ books (which this reviewer openly admits they did not), the story is still strong to follow without necessarily getting all of the references only hard-core fans would recognise. It’s engaging, and as soon as it ends on a cliff-hanger note you’ll be enraged that there’s only less than a year to wait for the next instalment. If there is one thing that F. Lawrence has definitely picked up from Collins it’s the giant stab at certain media cultures and how shallow and fake it all is. The actual Hunger Games are, of course, a twisted reality show where personality – or at least attempts at personality – as well as emotional manipulation comes way before talent is ever brought up. Even Katniss and Peeta are forced to continue acting like a romantic couple for the cameras following the events of the last film, and at one point Peeta even “proposes” to Katniss so that the image is retained for even longer. One could write an entire academic essay on the connections between The Hunger Games and real-life media tropes, and seeing how maturely and intelligently it is all handled in Catching Fire, it would be an essay worth reading just as much as this is a sequel worth seeing.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes everything from its predecessor and cranks it to 11, with incredibly captivating results. Wonderful performances, expert direction, and a clear social message about the extent of modern reality TV make this not only one of the strongest sequels to a movie since The Dark Knight but also one of the smartest, thought-provoking and all-round great movie blockbusters for a good long while.

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