By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Jenna Malone, and Woody Harrelson
In a rather interesting turn of events, I have found myself being pretty much the sole proponent of The Hunger Games on the site. Maybe it is because I read and enjoyed the books. Maybe it’s because I found it nice that teenage girls were hyping something that did not have Twilight in its title. Maybe it’s the fact that there has still not been a cute nickname made up for Hunger Games fans. I hate being categorized, after all. Or maybe it was because I gravitated toward Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss. A character that spends the prior film’s entire running time metamorphosing from a normal teenage girl dealing with poverty into a warrior defending her sister’s honor. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed the resulting film from last year, and was actually finding myself looking forward to Catching Fire. Although now there were even more elements of pressure being put on its makers. This time, its lead is an Oscar winner. This time, there was a new director. And, perhaps fittingly, like the set of circumstances both on and off-screen surrounding the first sequel of any series, the stakes were even higher. So the question is, does Catching Fire catch lightning in a bottle for a second time?
The answer is a resounding yes. Although not as enthusiastically as last time, I am highly endorsing what was pulled off here. New director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) holds the picture together admirably. He already has a leg up on previous director Gary Ross because of his ability to actually hold the camera still during battle scenes (predictably, most of the most violent deaths once again happen off-screen.) He also stages Catching Fire’s most jarring sequences (especially one involving a set of nasty baboons) in a real suspenseful way. Not bad for a guy coming into this film with I Am Legend and Constantine on his resume.
People who complained about the last film missing certain elements from the book (the only one that bothered me was who actually gave Katniss the Mockingjay) need not worry here. The story is willfully translated from the page, as the filmmakers this time painstakingly took all the elements and beats of the book and made sure they were included. Katniss’ skillful way of feigning love to win the Games has caused an uproar in all the other districts. To threaten her hold on the vernacular and cause real horror to her consequence, devious President Snow (Sutherland) and his right hand man Plutarch (Hoffman), for the 75th anniversary of The Hunger Games, decide to put together a sort of all-star edition. By bringing in people who have won The Games in the past, it is Snow’s hope that Katniss will meet either her emotional or physical destruction. Or, in his best case scenario, both.
This franchise is quite obviously rested on the shoulders of very capable actress Lawrence. This is a set of films that, more than any I can think of off the top of my head, lives or dies with its lead. Without her in the role, we would not be rooting for her plights to be solved. But Lawrence carries the film very admirably, making us feel her tearful hurt and arrow shooting rage. Of special note is the film’s very last shot, as it consists of a close-up of Lawrence’s face where she has to convey many emotions in those precious few moments. Now there were many things that Twilight was lacking. But perhaps its biggest downfall is a lack of a sympathetic main character. Getting this element right would have helped that series’ likability greatly. Whatever people have to say about The Hunger Games, they cannot deny the fact that they put the right actress in the right role of Katniss. However, there were some problems with Catching Fire. Hemsworth (Thor’s little brother) still does not have a firm foothold on the character of Gale. He is blank and has almost zero chemistry with Lawrence. Hutcherson, while not as bad, is not much better. What’s most striking about these two is not how bland they are. But how undeserving of Katniss they really are. With the lack of a decent love story, The Hunger Games franchise has had two films to establish these elements and they have not done it. This is a big problem when it comes to trying to create emotional cruxes for the characters surrounding Katniss. Despite the lack of love chemistry, there are some character highlights. Almost Famous notwithstanding, I am normally not a big fan of Hoffman. But the mysterious touches he brings Plutarch are a welcome addition to the franchise. Malone surprisingly holds her own in the almost butch role of Johanna. And Sutherland’s Snow is just as scheezy as he’s ever been, proving to be a great adversary for Katniss and building the series up for a great showdown.
In the end, that is exactly what Catching Fire is. It is a dark and satirical film that has spectacular thrills and plenty of emotional closure. But the movie has the unfortunate position of being the middle child in a bigger family. While far from being Empire Strikes Back, I would compare it to Rocky II. It has a few elements of more of the same, but really shifts the gear a shift higher. The producers realize that higher stakes mean higher pay offs. It’s just too bad they haven’t found their Han and Leia yet.