Let's try this whole 'horrifying dystopia' thing again...
'Catching Fire' makes up for its predecessor, improves in almost every way
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Lionsgate
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Lynn Cohen and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 26 minutes
November 22, 2013
(out of four)
At last, it feels like there's something actually at stake in the Hunger Games franchise. After a toothless series opener that went out of its way to undermine (or flat-out ignore) its own ideas, Catching Fire arrives to set a new course. With the entrance of new director Francis Lawrence comes a sense of maturity and intelligence sorely lacking in the first installment.
Ultimately it comes down to understanding - or even just acknowledging - the implications of the series' premise. This is a story about a government-mandated competition in which kids are forced to kill one another until there is a lone survivor; the first movie's approach to this was to turn it into a black-and-white story about good kids (who remained innocent and pure throughout) and bad kids (who just enjoyed killing people). By sidestepping any moral complexity, the filmmakers told a triumphant story that ultimately had no meaning.
But Lawrence, along with new writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (under the "deBruyn" pseudonym), reconfigures the dynamics - both morally and politically - in ways that turn the film into the actual dystopian parable its predecessor was only pretending to be. For a start, the games themselves - which take up the film's second half - are more interesting, as they embrace the ethical grey areas in ways the previous film refused to. Rather than a band of Aryan psychopaths marauding around the forest mowing down fellow competitors, Catching Fire gives us several mini-alliances and partnerships fraught with mistrust and unknown intentions.
More importantly, the climate surrounding the Games is given added weight. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) was set up as a villainous figure in The Hunger Games, but his malevolence takes center stage in Catching Fire, exemplified by a rather terrifying (and terrifyingly calm) speech he gives to Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) early in the film. He acknowledges the bravery of her stunt at the end of the games - which saved both her life and that of District 12 cohort and made-up love interest Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson) - and leverages that act into a threat against her family, all in the name of keeping her (at least publicly) in the good graces of The Capitol.
But her willingness to play up her romance to the nation's audiences can't put a stop to the groundswell of revolutionary sentiment that has begun accelerating ever since her act of defiance was broadcast to the world. Which makes her a grave threat to President Snow and the nation of Panem's entire oligarchy. Commissioned as new head gamemaker is Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman*), who has his own ideas about how to turn the people against Katniss and quell whatever brewing rebellion her actions have sparked.
* Never hurts to bring in the best actor in the world to class up your movie a bit.
Speaking of quells (nifty segue, huh?), Catching Fire begins during the lead-up to the 75th Games, which happens to be the third "quarter quell" - something of a special edition of the Games that comes around every 25 years, each time with its own unique provisions. For this one, Snow unveils his big trick - the tributes will be selected from among past victors. Back to the arena they go, this time for keeps. It's no surprise that Katniss finds her name "randomly" called from the past winners from her district.
Katniss and her closest allies are still almost comically selfless; she insists on keeping Peeta alive no matter what, I guess because of his supposed nobility or something (more on that later), while Haymitch and Peeta insist on keeping Katniss alive. Meanwhile, Katniss is forced to build a tenuous alliance with the aggressively arrogant Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and the elderly, mute Mags (Lynn Cohen), with whom Finnick shares a special bond.
Plutarch's game is more inventive than Seneca Crane's ever was, as he builds something of an elaborate puzzle, encouraging the tributes to think their way around trouble; killing becomes not only a necessary byproduct of the game's objective, but a strategic maneuver, often planned well in advance. Unlike in The Hunger Games, the characters this time - yes, the noble, heroic ones - accept what they are forced to do.
But on that note: Once again, we come to the problem of Peeta Melark. I don't know the nature of his character in Suzanne Collins' novels, but in this film, he is presented as such an upstanding paragon of nobility, humility and goodness that both Katniss and the filmmakers go out of their way to save his life. (He nearly dies like three times in the first 20 minutes of the Games.) I might understand this if there were anything to Peeta Melark - anything at all - but there isn't. I'm not sure what the role would be like in someone else's hands, but there is nothing even remotely interesting about Hutcherson as an actor, or this performance specifically. There is no personality, no emotional weight, no charm, no viscera; there is nothing strange or unique or volatile or edgy about him. There is nothing there. Rarely have I seen a character - especially in a good movie - that is such a blank slate as this.
Which is a shame, because in all other respects - including the abandonment of the inept shaky-cam filmmaking that ruined the original's action sequences - this movie is a significant improvement on its predecessor. It makes the first one feel like a long, glorified flashback sequence, because all that one really gave us was the broad strokes. Catching Fire presents a more robust class conflict and a more thrilling Games experience. It's rather impressive how a franchise that made so very many gobs of money (there were too many gobs to count) refused to stand pat and actively tried to improve upon its shortcomings. Usually it's the quite the opposite - Let's see, this movie made a massive profit. That must mean it's perfect! Let's do another one that's exactly the same!
But here, in handing the reins off to new filmmakers, the studio has done the story - and all the ideas within it - a great service. Catching Fire works because it isn't afraid to get its hands dirty.