Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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In ironic denial of the blazing narrative about to unfold, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens on the frozen Appalachia of District 12, where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) pensively surveys her surroundings. Her eyes appear blank, numbed not only by the frigid air but also by her experiences in Panem’s Hunger Games the previous year. Less a victor and more of a survivor, her actions unwittingly had the potential to spark revolution, and thus Catching Fire reveals the consequences that will fall upon her. As a sequel, Catching Fire retains a few issues inherent in its literary source material, but it is still a significant step up from its predecessor, moving with greater confidence in portraying the seeds of societal upheaval.

Katniss’ time during the Hunger Games the previous year completely changed the dynamic of her life. Her passion for her close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) must be kept a secret, and her family has been ostracized to the Victor’s Village in District 12, where she is forced to continue to fake her romance with fellow victor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Upon the eve of setting out on the Victory Tour among the districts, she is unexpectedly visited by The President (Donald Sutherland) himself. The aged dictator is highly aware of the potential for the Victory Tour to transform into a series of riots in every district and therefore commands Katniss to convince everyone, but especially him of her love for Peeta. If she fails, Gale and her family could be put to death. With no choice, Katniss submits, but from the outset of their journey it becomes apparent that the voices of the masses in Panem will not be silenced. It is upon her return back to District 12 that the announcement is made for the Third Quarter Quell of the 75th Annual Hunger Games: The pool of participants in each district will be drawn from existing victors, meaning that Katniss will once again be thrown into an arena fighting for her life.

The adaptation of Catching Fire from book to screen is essentially 95% accurate, with few omissions. With that faithfulness comes the baggage of story elements that didn’t quite gel in the literary text. The relationship between Katniss and Peeta is emphasized, but fails to carry the same weight that it did in the first book or film, and scenes of intimacy between the two, whether faked or real, lack gravity. That is not to say that both Lawrence and Hutcherson aren’t up to the task of characters. Hutcherson can be believable in spurts, but Lawrence convinces thoroughly, especially in scenes of despair and anxiety. The propulsive focus on rebellion in the districts is also realized effectively, though some of the narrative additions, such as the President’s relationship with his granddaughter are lacking. The remainder of the cast is remains committed, with few weak links present. Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives as the new Gamemaker, and though he is often a tremendous actor, he’s on autopilot a bit too much. The standout continues to be the icy Sutherland as well as Jeffrey Wright providing gravitas when needed. The concept of throwing Katniss back in the Hunger Games is a bit of retread, however. The new arena is visually impressive, and the concept of snuffing out Katniss’ public image makes sense, but its a tired narrative trope.

Dozens of franchise films these days wear the thumbprints of their directors on their sleeves. Catching Fire is a bit more reserved, with marks from the studio more present than of the director, Francis Lawrence. The first third of the film is a bit restless in its editing, rarely taking pause for breath. Gradually, Lawrence allows the film to relax in several scenes, while also crafting some useful montages displaying Katniss’ unintended influence on the peoples of Panem. Also welcome are Lawrence’s steadier visual choices, favoring symmetrical compositions, and far more wide masters than Gary Ross afforded to the first film. Director Lawrence’s more confident hand draws better attention to the production design of the districts as well as the costumes. Lawrence is working off of a bigger budget, so the money certainly shows. Where Catching Fire truly surprises are in its moments of grace, especially during a resonant scene in the arena where one tribute looks into the eyes of another dying in his arms, as the sun rises and another life is needlessly lost. The Hunger Games series may be in need for more of these kinds of moments, but when they arrive, the fragile barrier between life and death is rarely more beautiful.

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~ by romancinema on December 3, 2013.

One Response to “Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

  1. Good review. The type of movie you can literally bring any type of person to, and they’ll most likely find a way to enjoy themselves. Whether it be through the story, acting, social commentary, action, or anything else.

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