Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Poster for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire(Editorial note: I wrote most of this, in, like, December, but I was in the process of leaving my job and busy doesn’t even begin to describe how I was. You probably can’t see this in the cinema anymore, but you should defo buy the DVD when that comes out.*)

It has been a while since I made it out to a cinema and successfully saw a film. My Geek Film Buddy, Lee Harris, and I utterly failed at seeing Thor 2 the other week, because we suck. We did much better this time, cunningly making sure to book our tickets online.

So, in addition to the considerable hype and unanimously good reception from everyone I know, I was also just really excited to get out of the house and engage in some well-deserved escapism. I’ve also been reading the first book (and finding that the first movie was a very accurate adaptation) and had recently rewatched the first film. And then, you know, Jennifer Lawrence.

I, like everyone else, have been utterly charmed by Jennifer Lawrence. I had been somewhat concerned about the fact that they picked a pale-skinned blonde woman to play an olive-skinned dark-haired girl (and tinted her skin) for the previous movie. However, whilst I still feel that is a legitimate concern, I find I cannot blame Jennifer Lawrence for this. She is an excellent actor and, it turns out, legit one of the most down-to-Earth, fun, and engaging stars to suddenly find herself in the public eye.

Whether it’s meeting other celebrities and looking like she’s ‘just found a unicorn‘:

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Being dangerously playful with knives, or photobombing on her own red carpet, it’s hard not to love her. And the fact that she point blank refused to lose weight because she didn’t want girls dieting in order to look like Katniss basically elivated her to the status of goddess.

Needless to say, I was excited. The sort of level of excitement that is very easily disappointed. And I wasn’t.

Plot

Catching Fire picks up nearly a year on from the end of the first movie. Her new found wealth has not stopped Katniss  (Lawrence) from hunting – she just hunts for other people now. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still interested in Katniss, and jealous of her public relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As Katniss is leaving for the pre-75th Hunger Games tour, the romantic tension comes to a head, and Gale kisses her.

Unbeknownst to either of them, the kiss is caught on camera, and President Snow shows up at Katiss’s house in the winner’s village (a somewhat bleak and grey, if well-appointed, part of District Twelve). He threaten’s Gale and Katniss’s families, if Katniss fails to make the love affair with Peeta convincing. Katniss has made a mockery of the Hunger Games in forcing them to allow both herself and Peeta to live, and she needs to make it clear that her actions in the 74th Hunger Games were acts of love, and not rebellion.

As the tour progresses, tension mounts, as it becomes clear just how much rebellion threatens in the other districts. Peeta and Katniss continue to be a focal point of rebelion, despite their efforts, and Snow decides to take action. A special Hunger Games is planned to mark the quarter-century anniversary. In this games, all the tributes will be drawn from winners of previous years.

The winners are not best pleased. But how can they fight back from within the games themselves?

Analysis

As with the first movie, this is a film of two halves – one focusing on developing the political situation and world, one embedded in the survival-oriented, adrenaline-fuled Hunger Games. I loved the first film, but I can see why many people are saying they liked this one better. Now that we understand the world, the filmmakers are free to go deeper, developing the tensions and exploring the subtelties of fermenting rebellion. The second half – the one within the Games themselves – is also more tense. In the first movie we kinda knew that Katniss was going to win somehow, and whilst we also kinda know we’ll be seeing Jennifer Lawrence for a third movie, the precise resolution of this film remains open. More is at stake than Katniss’s own life, and although we know that the events within the games will be linked to the rebellion outside, we don’t know how that link is going to be progressed. In this sense, the character motivations in the two sections of the movie are more intertwined as well.

Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is more interesting because the Hunger Games within the movie are. All the tributes are dangerous individuals, and all of them are people who had been promised a life of luxury and safety that has unexpetedly been ripped out from underneath them. It changes the dynamic of the games. Additionally, the arena itself is more challenging and surprising. I call this ‘uncomfortable’ because we are confronted with the fact that what is designed to work on the brutal desires of the people watching in-world also works on us.

But to attribute the tension solely to a commentary on visceral joy in brutality is not to do justice to the film, or to ourselves. In particular, we are introduced to a new and deeply interesting cast of characters, all of whom have had to deal with the brutality of winning the games, and have done so in different ways. Johanna Mason  (Jena Malone) draws attention for every second of screen time she gets, spitting with bitterness and anger at being thrust into the games again. Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) is a striking, charming, enigma, who leaves us guessing about whether his compassion is real or an act. Wiress (Amanda Michael Plummer) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) present an interesting counter point to the youthful violence as tributes who won their games quite some time ago, and who did so with their wits and intelligence, rather than physical strength. Mags (Lynn Cohen) the eldest tribute, at 80, presents a different age group again, and her presence as a friend and mentor to Finnick introduces a new and interesting dynamic. Whilst it would have been nice to see an older woman presented as less weak-and-to-be-protected than is the stereotype, Mags is not simply bracketed as valueless. Katniss sees her value right away, and the character does demonstrate that there is more than one form of courage – more than one way to protect others – through her actions in the games.

Effie TrinketOther existing pre-characters are offered a chance to develop, too. I was particularly taken by the character progression of Effie Trinket. Whilst her flawlessly extravagent style is more fabulous than ever, the brief hints at compassion and team spirit that peaked into her presentation in the first movie flower here. Although the way she expresses her solidarity is received as bizarre and a little shallow at first, Effie proves that her heart is true and makes a genuine contribution to the cause. Elizabeth Banks delivers a flawless and nuanced performance that is beyond captivating.

My one critique of the film concerns the ending. I’m not going to say anything about the content of the ending, its more of a stylistic point, so I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler. The criticism is this: it just stops. I don’t think I’d realised it had actually finished until a good ten seconds after the credits had started to roll. Lee turned and said to me: ‘Maybe if we stay until after the credits, there’ll be another thirty minutes of film?’, and that’s kinda how it felt. I was well in the zone, expecting to be coming up on some kind of middle-resolution in the next half hour or so, but completely not expecting it to stop. Sure, there’s a tradition of putting a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the second film in a trilogy, but there wasn’t even so much as Luke and Leia starring off out at the stars. I mean, split the party, if you like, but give the audience a moment of peace to collect themselves before the credits roll, you know?

So that was… jarring. I’m told that the second book does basically just stop like that, but I can’t help but feel that a film director should be able to add a little finesse to that blunt edge. And it’s surprising, because the rest of the film is so masterful. I feel like we’re gonna have to wait until we can have both films on DVD and watch 2 and 3 in one sitting in order to get a cohesive experience.

Nevertheless, ending and all, this is a great piece of cinema and well worth your time. Katniss is a great character and role model for young girls, and I adore the fact that with Peeta and Gale both mooning over her and presuring her to take them out of the so-called ‘friend-zone‘ Katniss still has her eye on the things that matter and the sense that neither relationship really fits for her forms a unique refusal to engage with an angst ridden love-triangle.

This is a nuanced, engaging, political, and exciting movie. At a time when I have to go back to the 1930s for powerful economic commentary in most popular media, it’s hard to ignore the relevance of Catching Fire‘s vision of extreme wealth discrepancy and political suppression of the media when the 85 richest people have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion, and when protests in the Ukraine have been subject to a blanket media ban whilst our papers fill with Justin Beiber. This film is a must for teenagers and kids alike. This latest iteration cements my belief that The Hunger Games is science fiction like we rarely have the privilege to be exposed to in the twenty-first century.

(Read my review of The Hunger Games.)

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