The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
[Note from the editor: The Agony Booth is currently conducting a search for new article writers. This review was submitted by prospective staff writer Melissa Hunter. Feel free to sound off in the comments to let us know what you think of her review!]
It seems as though the world and the Interwebs are all abuzz right now, discussing Catching Fire with a frenzy of superlatives and J-Law pics. I’m afraid I’ll be no different, as today I’ll be covering the visual feast that was the second entry in The Hunger Games saga.
And it really did look amazing, from the cold, gray shots of Victors’ Village, to the rich splendor of the Capitol, to the lush green habitat that was the setting of the 75th Hunger Games. With every shot, and with every example of well-implemented CGI, it was obvious that director Francis Lawrence’s budget was a damn sight more generous than his predecessor’s. The sequel escapes from the confined nature of the first film, and introduces us to several new worlds for our eyes and ears to marvel at.
The story begins a few months after The Hunger Games left off. Crowned the conquering heroes, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to District 12 to reside in Victors’ Village, where they’re in the most auspicious company of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), their alcoholic mentor and only other surviving champion of District 12.
Even at this early stage, we begin to see the cracks in Katniss’ facade; nightmares and flashbacks visit her both when she’s awake and asleep. Her trials aren’t over yet, however, which she learns when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) somehow transports himself into the study of her swanky new digs. He imparts a warning that Katniss rightly translates as being her last chance to acquiesce to Snow’s will, and not flame the potential fires of future rebellion. She then embarks upon a district tour with her faux-beau and fellow champion Peeta the Baker. Oh, but not before she shares a parting smooch with Thor’s little bro Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the other corner of this tepid love isosceles.
It’s on this tour that Katniss begins to feel the extent of the public’s unrest. Particularly in District 11, where she eschews the prepared flash cards thoughtfully provided by the candy-coated Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and takes it upon herself to deliver a heartfelt apology to the families of the fallen Thresh and little Rue, saying that without either of them, she wouldn’t be alive. This prompts a mass response of that kiss-salute gesture the people are so fond of, and the crowd surges, only to be met with bullets and brute force from the “Peacekeepers” of the Capitol. This heralds a huge turning point for Katniss, as she begins to worry about her complete inability to please President Snow, and what that will mean for her family’s safety.
Both she and Peeta toe the line for the remainder of the tour, keeping their heads down and ignoring the chants of the incensed crowds, as they dutifully read their prepared speeches and praise the Capitol. Still fearful of the President’s reprisal, Katniss even goes so far as to suggest that she and Peeta are going to get married, further cementing their star-crossed lovers’ fairytale. Naturally, Peeta has no say in this at all, and goes along with it because 1) he loves Katniss, 2) he probably doesn’t want his family to die, and 3) he’s more than happy to accept whatever crumbs of affection fall from Katniss’ table. How very romantic!
Their tour culminates in a huge soiree hosted by Snowy himself at the presidential mansion, where it becomes apparent that she hasn’t quite managed to convince him of her loyalty. With a simple and almost imperceptible shake of his head, President Snow seals her fate.
They return to a home in disarray. Curfews have been enforced and public lashings in the square seem set to become a common occurrence. In an attempt to save Gale from the whips of injustice, Katniss, along with Peeta and even Haymitch, once again become the target of Snow’s ire. He consults with the new Games Master Plutarch, Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who suggests that they organize a new Hunger Games, a quarter quell, in celebration of the competition’s 75th anniversary. This time, instead of reaping children, they plan on reaping the former victors from each district. Of course, this means that Katniss is destined to re-enter the ring, with the sole purpose of destroying her and suppressing the rebellion she’s become the poster child of.
Without being afforded the opportunity to say goodbye to Primrose, Katniss is whisked away along with Peeta (who, incidentally, volunteered to take Haymitch’s place). It’s probably a good thing she didn’t get to say a teary farewell to her sister, because if I’m honest, Prim is probably the most underdeveloped character of this series, and as such, is really rather boring. So, being spared that particular scene, the action in the Capitol, and later, the arena begins.
The Capitol administration not only feels the dissatisfaction of the regular plebeian folk of the districts, but they also suffer the wrath of the returning tributes, who appear on the live TV show hosted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and voice their displeasure at being sent to die, again. One by one, they pull out all the stops in an attempt to drive their valid points home, but nothing seems to be working. Peeta even makes the shocking reveal that he and Katniss did indeed get married, in secret, and now she has a bun in the oven! But not even that makes a difference.
Katniss, for her part, doesn’t beg or plead; she just does another fancy twirl in her wedding dress, and just when we think Jennifer Lawrence is about to keel over after a rather ungraceful looking spin (wonder how many takes of that they made her do), her dress magically turns into a mockingjay outfit. Well, her designer basically just signed his own death warrant.
The next day, it’s off to the games for our heroes. Katniss is again accompanied by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), her stylist and designer extraordinaire. I always thought his presence was strange, but I guess the Capitol wants everyone to look their best before they’re sent to their deaths. He gives her words of encouragement, per tradition, and Katniss steps into the sucky-tubey thing that whisks the tributes away to fight for their lives. As soon as she’s safely encapsulated inside, Peacekeepers barge in, grab Cinna, and start beating him to death. The image of Cinna being dragged away, his body limp and lifeless, is the last thing Katniss sees before she’s thrown into the arena.
She emerges into the light, and we see a very different kind of arena than the wooded landscape of the first Hunger Games. All tributes are standing on pillars, surrounded by water, and a circular, man-made beach. The klaxon sounds, and everyone dives in, with not a belly-flop in sight. That’s when I realized something: Peeta can swim. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recall that there, Peeta can’t swim at all, proving himself to be a liability to Katniss yet again. It’s a very small change, but one I noticed. A part of me thought it made sense not to constantly remind the viewers of his obvious incompetence, but the other, logical part of me thought it was a little stupid. I mean, Katniss can swim because she covertly left the grounds of District 12 to hunt in the woods and by the lake. Peeta never left. Where did he learn to swim? In a bathtub?
Katniss rushes to the cornucopia of weaponry and nabs a bow and arrow for herself. Naturally! She’d be pretty useless without those now, wouldn’t she? She’s joined by several new faces, all victors from previous years: Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) forms the backbone of an alliance that gets forced upon Katniss, which ensures Peeta’s safety in those first few terrifying, free-for-all minutes of the Games. They’re joined later by the genius inventor Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and the wonderfully mouthy and not at all body-conscious Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) who got nekkid earlier on in an elevator.
I won’t go into too much minute detail about the action in the arena, but after facing unusual horrors like angry baboons, evil killer fog that’s miraculously cured by water, spinning cornucopias, Peeta dying and then being resurrected by Fisherman Finnick, and Katniss pulling Katniss-faces, this alliance manages to take out the other “career” tributes in record time. Which leaves just a few survivors, and Katniss is in a grand state of confusion as to her loyalties.
When events finally come to a head, Katniss takes it upon herself to bring down the dome. Then she’s taken away by the Claw, like a stuffed toy prize, and when she awakens, she’s in the company of a few unexpected individuals. When the truth of the behind-the-scenes skullduggery dawns on her, and upon hearing that Peeta is now in the hands of the nefarious Snow, she has a bit of a meltdown. But judging by the look on her face before the credits roll, we’re left in no doubt about one thing: this means war.
I Am Legend and Constantine director Francis Lawrence did an excellent job with what he had here. The pacing was spot on, and I know some would disagree, given the 146-minute running time, but I think his approach was perfect. Sticking with a very faithful adaptation, the atmosphere and feeling of Catching Fire was well constructed. You could feel the discontent and rising tide of rebellion from the people grow in a gradual and natural progression, peaking in a completely believable and understandable mutiny at the film’s climax.
Jennifer Lawrence puts in a good performance, which we’d expect from an Oscar-winning actress, as she takes us along on Katniss’ developmental journey from loyal, family-oriented girl, to a fierce, determined young woman just beginning to recognize who her true enemies are. Hutcherson as Peeta has another okay run. I have to be honest: while he’s always presented as a genuinely lovely individual, in both the written and film versions of The Hunger Games, I’ve always found Peeta to be a bit gormless. But both lead actors’ performances have evolved in Catching Fire, and towards the end, I could almost understand how Katniss could develop strong feelings for Peeta, seeing as how he’s been her only constant throughout all these horrible ordeals. Still, though, there’s no sizzle here.
Young Liam Hemsworth provides a bit more chemistry in the short amount of screen time he gets, but at the halfway point of the series, I can’t help but view both Gale and Peeta as plot devices, shoehorned in to be the requisite romances for the female protagonist.
Woody Harrelson returns as the lush Haymitch, but apart from the occasional dry, sarcastic quip, we don’t see much of him. On the other hand, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket delighted me to no end, and I found myself wanting to see more of her. Lenny Kravitz as the ever-supportive Cinna adequately provided me with a scene I’ve been waiting to see since I first heard of plans to make the sequel, and Stanley Tucci as the impossibly charming and clueless presenter Caesar Flickerman was, as always, an entertaining and absolute joy.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a welcome surprise cast member for me, lending the film a gravitas that it definitely deserves. In particular, his scenes with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow had me in an awed reverie, as the two filled the screen and conversed in such a naturally sinister way. These two seasoned veterans did an excellent job of reeling me in.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t your usual Young Adult fare. It suffers from one or two flaws that this genre is littered with, but on the whole, Catching Fire is a far superior, more adult film than The Hunger Games, as we see the young characters we recognize from the first film grow into the people that could potentially help shape a new world. In particular, we watch as Katniss begins to believe in the power she could wield, and we wonder if this mockingjay has finally spread her wings.
As a rare sequel that surpasses the original, Catching Fire is well worth a watch for fans of The Hunger Games (the film, as well as the book series). While it’s nowhere near my movie of the year, nor worth full marks, it was certainly an enjoyable and solid follow up to a movie that had initially received a very neutral reaction from me.