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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review: The Odds Are in Our Favor
Being the middle chapter of a trilogy is an enviable position. Thanks to the efforts of the first film, there’s no need to set up a premise, and there’s also no pressure to reach any sort of definitive conclusion, given that there’s at least one (in this case, two) more film that will perform that task. Really, it’s just the second film’s job to ramp up tension and build on the premise of the first film, which Catching Fire does beautifully, all while more fully realizing the elements of the world of Panem in a way that the original did not.
Catching Fire begins where our story first ended with The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are reaping the rewards of living as victors in District 12, all while mentally wrestling with the aftereffects of the Games themselves. It’s when they embark on their tour around the Districts, however, that we really see things start to pick up thematically. Katniss and Peeta’s win was not only seen as a victory to many in the impoverished nation, but as an open act of defiance against the ever-onerous Capitol that governs each district with an iron fist. As such, Katniss has become a symbol of hope to the people, proof that there really is a way to openly defy such oppression to improve their lives. It’s because of this that we start to really feel the tension rising between the government and the people as the nation sits on the brink of a revolution.
Unaware of how her actions have impacted the nation as a whole, the ever-reluctant Katniss finds herself in a precarious position. The evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has warned her of her acts of defiance, admitted that he sees right through her romantic facade with Peeta, and has threatened the lives of her loved ones, should she do anything to inspire an uprising that would break the balance of power within Panem. Still, as she learns of her role as the “Mockingjay,” Katniss can’t help but feel strongly aligned with the rebellion, and her actions often reflect her hatred toward the Capitol and what they’ve done to her people.
It’s because of this that the President wants to have her killed, and the opportunity reveals itself when the people of Panem celebrate the 75th year of the Hunger Games by creating a special event that pulls the tributes from the living victors rather than the teens typically chosen at the reaping. Being that she is the only female victor from District 12, Katniss is once again forced to compete for her life in another event of the Games.
Where the original film merely touched on the subject, Catching Fire presents the delicate political tension in a very real and terrifying way. Many scenes of the film revolve around the government attempting to contain its people in horrifying and disturbing scenes of violence and brutality, and the conversations between President Snow and the games maker Plutarch Heavensbee are particularly chilling in their nonchalance when talking about containment and exploitation. It’s frightening, captivating, and very sobering, all handled with the same attention to detail as presented in Suzanne Collin’s original novel.
That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t a massive (and somewhat awkward) tonal shift halfway through the film once they enter the arena. In its ability to go from a political thriller to action film, the movie really does feel like two separate features glued together with good world-building and writing. It works, but not without feeling a little jarring at first. Thankfully, the pacing lays into the throttle and never really lets off, keeping us interested in what’s happening next rather than allowing for any lingering thoughts of awkwardness.
Surprisingly, the film actually lost tension once the Hunger Games kicked off. Where the first time in the arena was an intense and adrenaline-filled affair, these games are much more strategic and don’t feel to have the same stakes as they did the first time around. This isn’t necessarily a negative, however; the film’s narrative explicitly states that things really are different this time around, and this idea is carried over into the events of the Games and continues through its stunning conclusion.
What I found to be particularly disappointing was the presentation and arcs of the new characters introduced in the film. While the majority of people who will see this film will already have a knowledge of the source material, it’s easy to imagine that those who have not read the books will not appreciate many of the characters as they appear in the film. Joanna Mason (Jena Malone) appears out of nowhere and has a confusing attitude toward Katniss and Peeta that isn’t always made clear, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a seminal character in the film whose ultimate twist is unearned by the narrative and leaves a lot of gaping holes in the plot, Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin) has muddled motivations, and outside of playing on our feelings toward the vulnerable, we’re not given a lot of reason to really appreciate a character like Mags (Lynn Cohen), which then takes away from any weight her character’s actions might have had throughout the film.
This carries over to Peeta and Gale as well, both of which aren’t really built into much more than Katniss’ male cohorts the second time around. The film does often present Gale as a more noble and brave person than Peeta, which feels emotionally detached and never allows us to really like him for our own reasons, other than feeling empathy for him and appreciating his love for our main protagonist. Peeta is once again the brave and torn-up boy he was the first time around, and his devotion to Katniss and their fake romance is inspiring, if not a little pathetic. Often, it feels like these characters have great potential, but are never really given a moment to shine or develop on their own, making them feel like nothing more than support for Katniss rather than actual people.
Thankfully, Katniss is an amazingly complex and interesting character that evolves magnificently throughout the duration of the film, from reluctant victor to symbol of a revolution. She’s tangible, relatable, and likable, and ultimately takes on a sense of life that few other characters in the film do, thanks largely in part to Jennifer Lawrence’s masterful portrayal.
Surprisingly, the visuals of the film are actually a bit different from the original, with the colors feeling much more subdued, bogged down with grays and browns and conveying an overall sense of desperation throughout the world. Stylistically, it works, especially when put up against the flamboyant and over-the-top fashions of those in the Capitol.
Camera work is particularly impressive, and many of the shots are handled with such deliberate framing that they leave the audience with a lasting impression and understanding of how dire the situation really is. This is handled with great cinematography and some extreme close-ups that capture the emotion on character’s faces particularly well, especially in the film’s stirring final shot.
Action inside the games is captured well, although not without gratuitous amounts of shaky cam and anxious dipping that attempts to mask much of the violence in order to keep the film at a PG-13 rating. Despite this, what action we do see does feel a lot more brutal and carries with it a stirring finality that attests to how savage much of this world really is. Sure, it doesn’t have near the breadth of fighting and battles as the first film, but when we do see Katniss and company face off against the government and the other tributes in the arena, it doesn’t leave anyone unscathed. There’s a moment where Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) tells Katniss that there are no winners inthe arena; only survivors. The film takes this idea to heart and does a great job of conveying it through the actions these characters take against each other, all while building beautifully on its overall themes.
Despite their lack of need to start or finish a story, middle chapters are an essential part of a trilogy to build on the over-arching narrative and keep us enticed for the final act. Catching Fire not only manages to keep the pacing going with the force of a freight train, but takes all of the ideas presented in the original and capitalizes on them in very real and impressive ways that builds on the premise, but also speaks to many of the real world woes of poverty, balance of power, and violence found in our society today. Despite its small missteps, Catching Fire is essentially The Dark Knight of the Hunger Games trilogy, and an act that will certainly be difficult to follow.