Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Based on the Novel by Suzanne Collins
Rated PG-13 | 146 Minutes
Release Date: November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens up just as Katniss and Peeta, the winners of the 74th Hunger Games, are preparing to go on their victory tour of the 12 Districts and Capital of Panem and trying to find a rhythm to their now dual lives – the theatrical star-crossed lovers while in the spotlight and the barely acquaintances when the camera is off in their ever-dwindling private lives. As their tour begins, the pair sees from district to district signs of rebellion and discourse against the Capital by the citizens, the unplanned consequence of their televised defiance against the game’s rules during the events of The Hunger Games.

President Snow, seeing this growing rebellion as a threat against the very foundation of Panem, seeks to smother these dissidents by using Katniss as a tool, forcing her to sell her love for Peeta as genuine to the people to protect her family and by using her as a distraction for the citizens of the Capital. But when these plans fail their intention, a new more insidious plan is devised by the Hunger Games’ new Gamemaster, Plutarch Heavensbee (new to the franchise Philip Seymour Hoffman). His plan is simple. For the 75th Hunger Games, each district will offer up as tribute the living winners, no matter how old, from all of the previous games. The goal: to snuff out what Katniss Everdeen represents and to show all of Panem just who is truly in control of each and every life within the country.

Dystopian future science-fiction has always played an important role in pop culture by expressing current event trends played out to their most extreme conclusion and the Hunger Games series is no different. While the first film touched on the unequal balance between the starved districts and the lavish capital, the haves and have nots, and the crushing power of an omnipotent government, here those differences are played for a much stronger effect and significance. Catching Fire puts more weight on these elements, not only because the core plot demands it, but because it is just that important for fleshing out the world in which this story unfolds.

Overall, Catching Fire simply and successfully outshines each of the original film’s finer qualities and smoothes out its detractors. It also does what any good sequel should do – it takes the themes, characters, beats, and rules set up in the first film and successfully expands upon them while turning them upside down.

Under the careful direction of Francis Lawrence, the film is much more impressive to take in as the set, character, and costume designs take on a much more vital appearance through the backgrounds of the movie. Lawrence also makes the film easier to view as he has done away with much of the shaky handheld camera work present in the first film. In its place is a more grandeur directional choice with sweeping and dynamic-but-controlled camera movement and tighter action, while the editing pace itself almost attempts to beat down even the remotest hope for victory the characters may have. All of these focus points provide a very strong supporting backbone to the story as constructed by new writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt.

Beaufoy and Arndt quite successfully transition the book’s source material to the screen. Here, the story touches on many of the same character paths taken and physical locations visited, but with much more hopeless tone. The relationship triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta take on new dimensions that make them more interesting to watch, the visiting of the districts and the capital feels more dangerous, and the Hunger Games festivities, trainings, and the game itself have the curtain drawn back a bit to show what their true purpose for existence is. Everything is driven toward the ultimate goal of President Snow’s desire to return to the status quo.

Among the star-studded cast, there is hardly a criticism to be made. It is simply amazing watching each actor, new or returning, breathe life into the character they have pulled from the page. Jennifer Lawrence especially does a commendable job to Katniss’s desperate attempt to find a direction to point her anger (a running theme of the movie) and the inner conflict that comes with being involuntarily chosen as a symbol of resistance. Philip Seymour Hoffman provides another outstanding performance that is chilling and calculated to watch. And yes, Sam Claflin embodies the dreamy and gorgeous Finnick Odair to perfection.

If you are coming into the movie having already read the books, you will most likely be supportive of how the film represents it. Scenes, sequences (notably the 75th Hunger Games), and most importantly the new characters are all successfully translated to the screen.

Catching Fire is one of those films where it is important to go into as blindly as possible and witnessing some of the, what will no doubt become, more iconic and memorable shots without being spoiled by repeated viewings of the trailers or sneak previews. It was impressive to see, up until the final trailer (which is to be avoided if at all possible), that hardly a frame of the actual games sequence was shown. No matter your knowledge of the games, come into this without seeing the footage. For those unfamiliar with the books, it cannot be emphasized enough to come into the movie unknowing. You will be more richly rewarded, and may even find yourself cheering and clapping for the smallest victory achieved.

There is an ever-growing list of films, whether classic or remembered by only its core fans, in which their sequels outshine the predecessor. Without a doubt, Catching Fire can now be securely added to that list.

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