The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare movie that is better than the book.
In almost all regards, the sequel improves on its predecessor. The end result? A Film that is faster, more confident, but that refuses to sacrifice the gritty tone that elevated the first beyond the realm of most YA novel adaptations.
Catching Fire takes off right where the first movie left off. Katniss and Peeta, having won the titular Hunger Games, are off on a victory tour, to revel in their success—and to distract the people of the dystopian nation Panem with their vapid celebrity love story so that, as a character puts it, “they forget what the real troubles are.” It seems that some people in Panem’s 12 oppressed districts see Katniss as a symbol of rebellion—an image that she needs to work do dispel if she wants to save herself and her family from vicious government reprisals.
The budget for Catching Fire seems to have been increased, and it tells. While the first movie felt right, it looked wrong. Despite tumbling through the forest and battling for several weeks, everyone was remarkably well-groomed and well-fed for combatants taking place in something called the Hunger Games. A few errant dirt smudges here and there were not enough to convince me that I was watching a gladiator sport, rather than a glamor competition. It wasn’t a huge problem ,but it did detract from the overall experience. In the sequel, people are allowed to sweat, to get covered in grime and blood, to have their lustrous locks fall into disarray.
The epileptic cameraman who shot most of the most film has been replaced by one with a steadier arm—probably for the best. The cam is still shaky when it needs to be, but Catching Fire is telling a bigger story, and the low-budget, rickety feel of the first is no longer appropriate. Before, the lives of our heroes were at stake. Now, its the fate of the world.
This picture is not actually from the movie, but it is so cool that it had to be included.
There are a bunch of new cast members this time around. Jena Malone stands out as the unhinged, seething Johanna Mason. Sam Claflin’s sardonic, mysterious Finnick Odair is also memorable. The old actors all pull their weight, with the possible exception of Liam Hemsworth, whose most memorable characteristic is still his squint. The love triangle between him, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta and Katniss is basically about a girl choosing between a bland but hot guy and an interesting but also (marginally) less attractive guy. Is anyone actually rooting for Hemsworth here? Here’s hoping the next movie finally fleshes him out.
If Catching Fire has a problem—which it does–it’s that it adheres too closely to it source material, particularly as it draws near what should have been its riveting finale. Most movies have an arc that centers around a climax—some sort of emotional or physical challenge in the latter minutes of the movie that must be overcome. It’s basic storytelling. Catching Fire just…doesn’t. Rather than getting your pulse up or having you gripping the edge of your seat, the Hunger Games’ last act will mostly likely leave you saying “huh?” as you try to figure out just what is going on. There is no fight scene on top of a metal sculpture surrounded by snarling dog monsters. There is no suspenseful confrontation as Katniss and Peeta prepare to kill themselves. Instead there’s some M. Night Shyamalan level trickery and a sneaky little plot twist that, while clever, isn’t emotionally satisfying. Though the stakes are arguably bigger this time around, by the time you realize just what they are, the climax—and the movie—is over, and you feel cheated. A dramatic reveal is all well and good, but the reveal here isn’t clever enough or surprising enough to justify this movie’s muddled ending.
Despite a weak ending, Catching Fire holds a lot of promise that the Hunger Games trilogy (or is it a quaternity now?) could turn out to be one of the best sci-fi/fantasy franchises since the days of the Lord of the Rings, though it’s not at that level yet. It builds on its themes about oppression, the media, and the nature pf modern society. We ARE Panem, the movie tells us—but its a message that’s delivered with admirable subtlety, rather than the ham-fistedness when might expect from this type of film (cough, Elysium, cough, Avatar). At one point, one of our villains describes the media tactics used to keep the people of the districts distracted and afraid so that they won;t question the government’s authority. “What kind of dress she’s gonna wear? – Floggings! What’s the cake gonna look like? – Executions. Whose gonna be there? – Fear. Blanket coverage shove it in their faces.” If that doesn’t sound like our media in a nutshell, I don’t know what does. It’s moments like this that make me eager to see what the next installment in this still-interesting franchise will bring.