MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire



When I reviewed The Dark Knight Rises last year, the trends of great movie trilogies were, particularly the strengths and weaknesses of each chapter.  I summed up that the first film covers the necessary introductions, the second one elevates the story to its peak heights, and the third exists to seal the deal and answer the middle film's cliffhanger.  In most great movie trilogies like Star Wars, The Godfather, or Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, the middle film stands above the beginning and ending chapters as the greatest of their respective series.  That tends to be one blueprint while other great trilogies, particularly The Lord of the Rings, Toy Story, and the Jason Bourne films, saved their best for the ending movie.  If you blow it up too big, you're The Matrix  trilogy, which flew off the rails with over-ambition from a solid first film.  Either way, to be great, you've got to exceed the original with an improved sequel or a dynamite ending on the third chance.

If those are the two sure-fire routes to attaining movie trilogy greatness, then The Hunger Games is going to have to wait one more film (well, two more with a split final chapter) before that distinction of greatness can be awarded.  After seeing the second installment, the hotly anticipated The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, my gut feeling is that they are saving their best for their swan song and not the middle.  While the budget and star power have increased with success and maturity from the comparatively modest first film 20 months ago, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does not do enough to achieve that level of being a great middle trilogy film on the same scale as The Empire Strikes Back orThe Dark Knight.  Stepping down from talking about greatness until greatness is achieved, this second film is certainly mild improvement from the first film, and will make a killing at the box office.  After all, the first film grossed $408 million domestically, higher than any Twilight or Harry Potter film.  This second film certainly has the potential to exceed that.

As most of you know from the first film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, now an Academy Award winner) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) were the unprecedented star-crossed lover winners of the 74th Hunger Games, an annual arena competition of bloodsport meant to be a media spectacle and punishing anniversary reminder of the commoners' failed uprising of the government in the fictional dystopian realm of Panem.  Society in this alternate Earth is staunchly governed with an iron fist by the Capitol, a gleaming central city of 1% decadence, while the majority poor are divided into twelve harsh work district colonies and police states.  Katniss and Peeta were the "tributes" selected from District 12 who captured the nation's wild attention with their love, self-sacrifice, and merciful conduct during the Hunger Games, fueled very much by the superficial hosting commentary by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

The trouble is that popularity is based partly on a lie.  Knowing that the competition was an audience-driven spectacle, Katniss and Peeta's romance was pretend for the cameras and they used that audience favoritism in their favor to outwit the game designers, lead by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, off screen this time).  Rather than be killed, the audience was given what they wanted, their united survival and return to District 12.  As before, while Peeta still pines for Katniss, the romance becomes triangular with the presence of commoner Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), whom Katniss really loves, but is now jaded himself after watching Katniss and Peeta fall for each other in the Games.

Since their now-legendary performance, Katniss and Peeta have lived their lie in front of the cameras, as orchestrated by the handler trio of promoter Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), trainer and former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and fashion designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).  More importantly, the two have become symbols of hope for the common people while visiting the other districts on their gaudy and orchestrated victory tour.  Small rebellions have started up and their Hunger Games success and hope-stirring inspiration is perceived as a great threat to the Capitol's leader, President Coriolanus Snow (the perfect Donald Sutherland), who means to smear their reputations and continue his fearful control.

That brings things to the next Hunger Games, the 75th "Quarter Quell" edition, where a new rule is added to make the tournament unique every 25 years.  In shocking fashion, President Snow brings in an ambitious and calculated new game designer in Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and announces that the 75th Hunger Games will be competed not by new tributes from each district, but solely with former champions.  That puts Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch in the crosshairs to have to rejoin the killing against the best that have ever competed, including the aquatic adonis Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin of Snow White and the Huntsman, sign this kid up for a superhero movie someday), the ax-wielding Johanna Mason (Jena Malone of Sucker Punch), and the scientific duo of Beetee and Wiress (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer).  Readers of the book will know what happens next, but I will stop here.

To be honest and up front, I didn't particularly fall in love with The Hunger Games back in the spring of 2012 like everyone else did.  I gave it an overall positive review, but I honestly would still rather watch John Carter from the very same month and year.  In that review, I spent quite a bit of time discussing the age-old battle of "the book is better than the movie."  As always, the book will be better than the movie and I haven't read any of Suzanne Collins's best-selling novels.  I can only evaluate and critique The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a movie experience, just as it should be judged.  If you need a more literary-connected review, you're going to have to look elsewhere.

As a movie, there's more than enough to entertain in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence is a big upgrade from Seabiscuit's Gary Ross from the first film and he shows, with a deft eye for smooth action and style, that he can (almost) wash the sheer sickening memory of Water For Elephants out of our collective memory.  The financial boost from the first film's success makes it on screen with bigger set pieces, better visual effects, and endless production value.  That craftsmanship at work makes this sequel a moderate improvement from the first, but it's still a flawed blockbuster.  I hate to say it, but much like how I prefer John Carter to The Hunger Games , I might just actually prefer Ender's Game toThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire this year too. Take this as just one guy's taste and opinion.

By far, the greatest positive about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is its lead.  Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence brings a heightened level of emotion and resolve to the traumatized and torn Katniss being put through the killing wringer once again.  Lawrence absolutely sells the peaks and valleys of this melodramatic narrative of our lead character very much dealing with PTSD.  She can still go off and win awards in her ensemble pieces and smaller films like Silver Linings Playbook and the upcoming American Hustle, but this franchise series will always be what makes her a dual-threat superstar-in-the-making.  She can act with the best in the business AND still be as popular as any matinee idol.  It's been a long time since we've seen a performer have both at such a young age.

Still, too much of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels repetitious.  With a total running time approaching two-and-a-half hours, the movie takes its dear sweet time getting to the relevant action and suspense that the marketing has been wise to hide.  While it tries to cut a few corners and condense from the novel, most of this film covers some of the same training, pageantry, and anticipatory posturing that we've seen and sat through once already.  The new characters are good additions, particularly Clafin's Finnick and Malone's Johanna, but they don't quite resonate (at least not yet) like Rue did from the first film.

The whole film plays a little bit like the seven-hour Super Bowl pregame show before the three-hour actual football game.  It's a whole lot of talk without a whole lot of new information.  The real stuff that should matter, namely the small beginnings of rebellion cropping up in Panem, the stirring of public outcry, and the difficult central love triangle, feel squeezed in rather than featured.  For all I know, as a non-reader of the books, this is all by design and the best really is being saved for last.  I can certainly feel the vibe that something big is coming.  What saves The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, as a film, from being a pure carbon copy is a dynamite final ten minutes that sets that very stage for a truly epic conclusion.  That promise and potential of this middle chapter being just the start of something bigger and more important is what gives this movie its strength and makes the whole series worth seeing through to the end.  Put me down as patiently waiting, eager to see more, but not fully impressed yet.

LESSON #1: MOVES VERSUS COUNTERMOVES IN HIGH STAKES AND LARGE SCALE GAMES AND COMPETITIONS-- The feelings of competitiveness and gamesmanship are raised in this second film.  The puppeteers of the Hunger Games arena are not going to fall for the same theatrics as last time and the presence of a field comprised of former champions is a huge challenge.  Remember, the former winners have been required to return as trainers for the tributes for years since their victories.  All are legitimate killers.  They know all the moves and plays, meaning it will take an even higher level of thinking and survival to win.

LESSON #2: INTERDEPENDENCE VERSUS INDEPENDENCE-- This lesson matches reviews given to the source novel of Catching Fire.  As it stands in this new competition, Katniss and Peeta are interdependent to help each other survive.  With their created public romance, they are linked together beyond the competition too.  They also both possess the level of willingness to sacrifice themselves to see the other live.  Between that and the necessary need for alliances on the battlefield with opponents they don't know if they can trust, this sense of interdependence works in conflict to a setting requiring independence where only one can win.

LESSON #3: HOPE IS THE ONLY THING STRONGER THAN FEAR-- This final lesson is a repeat from my review of The Hunger Games because it remains one of the strongest themes in the sequel.  Don't get me wrong, the other lessons of audience dynamics, media attention, and public thirst for violence are still here, but this lesson is the most important.  In this second chapter, hope is growing within Panem in an attempt to counter the increased attempts to continue the ruling by fear of the Capitol and President Snow.  He can sense the symbol that Katniss is becoming and means to break her spirits with his brand of fear to control her image.  Government control of her and the common people will be the continuing challenge moving forward with this series.  This lesson isn't going away.  You will read it two more times between now and November 2015.