The Good: Good story, Decent use of themes, Generally good acting, Decent effects
The Bad: Characters still fall a little flat
The Basics: Rectifying many of the issues that made The Hunger Games not worth watching, Catching Fire becomes a Fall film worth tuning in to!
Lionsgate has made a huge mistake. I write that as someone who is not a fan of The Hunger Games Trilogy, despite the fact that my wife has now read all three books. I was not impressed by The Hunger Games (reviewed here!) and I have noticed that the merchandising for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has been pretty anemic. In fact, outside the limited edition Hallmark Mockingjay ornament (reviewed here!), Catching Fire has not had a big pre-release push on the merchandising front. There seems to be a good reason for that: Catching Fire is a far more cerebral film than its predecessor and a far better one.
That leads me to my opening assertion: Lionsgate has made a terrible mistake. I was not a fan of The Hunger Games but I get how Lionsgate felt compelled to make the movie and make it first. Viewers needed to be introduced to the universe of The Hunger Games and understand the brutal methods of power and control utilized by the Presidents of Panem, including the current one, Snow. But when my wife finished reading the books, she noted that Catching Fire was the longest of the books and she complained that nothing much happened in Mockingjay. The mistake Lionsgate made: cramming everything from the second book into a single movie. Instead of breaking the final book into two films, the second book has a very natural break in it that could have made it a far better movie. This is a film with a lot crammed into it.
As it stands, though, Catching Fire is ambitious, generally smart, and well-presented, living up beyond the potential of The Hunger Games to make for a vastly superior film. Unlike the first film, which essentially made the audience into the citizens of the corrupt Panem, rooting for Katniss Everdeen to slay her child opponents in a bizarrely orchestrated bloodsport, Catching Fire exposes the movement throughout Panem that is leading to a genuine revolution. For half the film, the consequences of the corruption embodied by President Snow is explored and the viewer is given a fairly decent (and entertaining) civics lesson on the power of the individual and the methods employed by corrupt individuals in the highest levels of government. The allegory is strong and worthwhile and it makes most of Catching Fire worthwhile. The latter half of Catching Fire develops nicely as a story of sacrifice and rebellion realized; a story that would have carried more weight if some of the characters involved in making the sacrifices (and orchestrating the rebellion) were characters the viewer cared about more.
Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off. Having been triumphant dual survivors of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have become symbols of defiance throughout the Districts of Panem. Katniss realizes this while on tour in District 11, where the child, Rue, she worked to protect in the Hunger Games hailed from. Having seen Katniss defy the rulemakers in the Hunger Games, by threatening to kill herself with Peeta at the climax and rob the government of a victor to trot around, Katniss has inspired the rebels scattered throughout Panem to openly engage the government forces. When Katniss learns that the previously-destroyed District 13 may not be the abandoned wasteland the government claims it is, she becomes even more sympathetic to the anti-government forces.
To stop the growing insurrection and to psychologically devastate the Districts of Panem, President Snow uses the 75th Annual Hunger Games as a way to dispatch of the troublesome Katniss, Peeta, and other prior victors at the Hunger Games who have symbolic value to the Districts and the Rebellion. Traumatized from the moment she is forced back into the games, Katniss works to keep Peeta alive. But soon, other contestants in the Games begin to ally themselves with Katniss and it becomes clear that Snow may have botched his attempt to stop the rebellion.
Right off the bat, it is worth noting that President Snow is one of the lesser villains of modern cinema. How a man who expects to rule with an iron fist using fear and ritualized demoralization does not see the potential of prior victors slugging it out as a bad idea seems particularly lame. For sure, Snow is getting some bad advice from the new Game’s Master, Plutarch Heavensbee. Heavensbee’s role in Catching Fire might go over the head of Katniss, but it is unlikely to stymie fans of science fiction or political dramas. While there is almost always a Brutus in a political drama, it weakens the Caesar of the work for them to be so blind to it. As a result, President Snow’s miscalculations in pitting former victors against each other (which basically puts the people who have been most traumatized by the system in one place for days on end and seems like it would do little outside inspire further acts of televised resistance) weaken the President of Panem.
For her part, Katniss Everdeen comes across as less whiny in Catching Fire than she did in The Hunger Games. A lot of the credit for this has to go to Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence portrays Katniss as a young woman who is ignorant of political intrigue, as opposed to just stupid. Despite having the tactical wherewithal at the climax of The Hunger Games to extort the Capitol for her and Peeta’s lives, Katniss is still just an inexperienced young woman whose tactical abilities largely come from hunting. While that is an asset inside the games, it does not realistically prepare her for clandestine approaches from rebels and Lawrence walks the fine line that makes Katniss seem reasonably ignorant as opposed to laughably daft.
Unfortunately, Josh Hutcherson is still thoroughly white bread as Peeta Mellark and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is presented with so little substance as to not make him a viable romantic interest for Katniss. Hutcherson’s presence in the movie is undermined by the far more dynamic Sam Claflin as Finnick. Finnick seems instantly more interesting than Peeta and where Peeta bumbles through the film, Finnick actually is presented with all the seeds of being an able leader. Claflin plays Finnick well and the onscreen magnetism he possesses serves the character well. Also noteworthy of the Catching Fire cast is Jena Malone. Malone manages to make the acerbic Johanna Mason seem unlike any of the meek roles she has played in the past and she plays the rougher edges in Mason without any sort of hints at her Sucker Punch (reviewed here!) character.
Before Catching Fire degenerates into the choreographed blood sport – though this time there is so much more going on inside the arena than simple survival that the audience does not fall into the trap of being like the citizens of Panem and there is little entertainment in the deaths in the arena – the film manages to captivate. As the story of sacrifice and rebellion grows, the viewer actually begins to care what might come of Panem, if not Katniss.
Catching Fire is a strong middle act and the struggle of the twelve (or thirteen) Districts against the oppressive Capitol seems crammed into a film that moves along at a decent pace, but glosses over some of the subtlety that might have made Panem one of the more interesting dystopian realms. As it stands, Catching Fire might have a problematic antagonist and an ally hampered by lackluster acting, but it progresses The Hunger Games Saga in a direction that is enough to make viewers want to see how the Rebellion fares. What might have made the Saga, and this installment, more compelling is a fundamentally more interesting protagonist. Jennifer Lawrence does what she can with Katniss Everdeen, but for the bulk of Catching Fire, viewers are rooting for a pawn and that’s not an enviable place for a storyteller to hinge their success, nor an audience to hang its hopes.
For other action/science fiction second act films, please check out my reviews of:
The Empire Strikes Back
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Thor: The Dark World
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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