I wasn’t a fan of the original Hunger Games movie last year, but’s it’s undoubtedly a series with a much broader appeal than most of the YA adaptations that have been hitting out cinemas recently. Catching Fire is a prime example of a capable sequel, in that it’s basically on par with its predecessor, it continues the story in a very similar fashion, is of the same quality, will surely greatly please all the many fans of the original, but will be unlikely to convert anyone who didn’t care for it.
Catching Fire picks up almost directly from the end of the previous film, as victors Katniss and Peeta (I hate having to write that spelling) have to do a tour of all the districts. Their ‘defiance’ in the games has clearly caused a major stir among the oppressed masses, as now signs of rebellion are showing up wherever Katniss goes, and the blatantly evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threateningly breathing down her neck.
One of my nitpicks with the first movie was with the time-scale that presented its events as the ‘Seventy-Fourth Annual Hunger Games’. It seems highly unlikely that this could have gone on for that long, not only without the crucial audience getting bored of them (can you imagine 75 seasons of the same TV show?) but without anyone else trying to ‘beat’ the games in same the manner Katniss and Peeta do, which is hardly some act of genius. Maybe if it had just been the fourth games it would be easier to buy.
Although the film does feature a typical YA novel 1 girl, 2 boys love triangle, at least it’s not too emphasised, or really the main focus of the story. Katniss’ pleasing lack of interest in a relationship is presented in a believable manner. Aside from a few of those scenes, the first half of the movie gives us a lot of good material about the slowly changing environment in the dystopian districts.
So it looks like the whole world is in for a good shaking up with Katniss as the icon of a revolution, and what is the government’s solution? Send her back into the Hunger Games again, for a special ‘Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition’, the hook being, she’ll only be up against other former victors.
Yes, after appearing to be going in an interesting direction for a while this film delves right back into the exact same territory the first film did, giving us repetitious scenes of the parade, fiery clothing, interviews with Stanley Tucci’s grotesque presenter, and the tributes training up to enter the games. It’s during these scenes that the film introduces a seriously interesting plot point which it then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with.
They don’t get to the arena for quite some time, but the film does manage to change things a bit when they’re there. The threats to the competitors now are mostly external, rather than just each other, (though it’s unclear why, as some of these could easily kill every competitor in a minute, which doesn’t seem to be the goal) and they’re all adults of varying age now, not the kids of before. The scenes in the games are big in spectacle and often very tense and exciting, and manage not to feel like a re-tread of the first (or indeed, the film it’s indebted to, Battle Royale).
A big issue with the first film was its presentation of violence, and, bar a bit more blood, that inevitably hasn’t been fixed here. The Hunger Games is still an inherently violent story that has to be filmed without being able to show much violence. A key example occurs in an early scene that switches to Katniss’ point-of-view, allowing a door to close over a killing that’s about to happen, preventing the audience from actually seeing it. Such techniques only serve to weaken the impact of these moments, though at least new director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) doesn’t resort to using ‘shaky cam’ like the original.
The series has attracted some quality new actors second time around, but to little effect. Philip Seymour Hoffman sleepwalks his way through a small but significant part as the new games master, and Jeffrey Wright is introduced as if he’s going to be an important character but then never is. It’s also baffling that they cast an actor of Toby Jones’ calibre only to give him literally seconds of screen time (probably less than half a minute). In fairness though, Josh Hutcherson, whom I’ve never thought a great deal of, is a little better now, though his character is still rather flat.
It’s certainly a wonderful and all-too rare thing to see a decent female lead in a sci-fi/action franchise, and as everyone’s centre of attention Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is, well, she’s fine. Honestly there’s nothing bad about her performance at all but it’s hardly amazing either. I know I’ve said this before but I just do not understand the big deal surrounding this girl. The absurd, hyperbolic praise she routinely receives could make someone think that she’s the best thing to happen to film acting in the last decade (I mean really, she was awful in X-Men: First Class and The House at the End of the Street). Here she practically has the show stolen from her by Jena Malone (Donnie Darko, Sucker Punch) as by far the film’s best new character.
There is a confidence filmmakers can have when making a series as already successful as The Hunger Games is, which allows them to pull an Empire Strikes Back style ending. They know they’ll be making another film, so they can build up to a climax that they’re saving for the next one (or the one after actually, as I’m sure the plot of the final book just demanded two films to do it justice, eh?). It’s the kind of ending that, years in the future when watching a Hunger Games marathon, might well work fine, but at the moment, it feels like the film just stops unsatisfactorily, particularly considering how long the film has been.
Catching Fire is mostly a perfectly competent sequel; it improves a few minor flaws from the original but suffers from repeating several of its plot elements, but I do like political intrigue in the world of The Hunger Games, and still wish to see where this story is going, just hoping that they can go a bit further with it next time.