Sequels of big-budget franchise films can be tough to get right for a mass audience. People who fell in love with the first film usually want that same exciting feeling again for the second film, which is unfortunately rare for many franchises. The first Pirates of the Caribbean film felt like the start of a exciting new series of movies but the franchise quickly devolved after introducing too many one-dimensional characters and unnecessarily complex plots in the sequels. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire had huge expectations riding on it, with 2012’s The Hunger Games becoming a huge, worldwide box office phenomenon and turning Jennifer Lawrence into America’s Sweetheart. Catching Fire not only had to please fans of The Hunger Games book series by Suzanne Collins, it also had to give non-book readers enough to properly enjoy it without prior knowledge of what was to come. As someone who was a fan of the books, I can say that director Francis Lawrence has created what may be the best possible adaptation of Catching Fire imaginable.
With Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence creates a much more cohesive film than his predecessor Gary Ross, who directed The Hunger Games with the shakiest of shaky cams. The cameras have steadied, the scenes are given room to breathe and the performances have become richer. Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen, a skillful archer who won the deadly Hunger Games with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in the first film, becoming the first pair to win in the history of the Games. When we pick up with Catching Fire, Katniss has given the people hope, becoming a symbol for standing up against the tyranny of the Capitol. The Capitol has noticed her effect on the people, and they know she must be stopped, for fear of an uprising. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devise a plan to bring all previous Hunger Games champions back in an “All Stars” Hunger Games of sorts. With Katniss becoming more idolized with each passing day, the young archer is forced to return to the very thing she despised most.
Though it would be tempting for the film to spend all of its time inside the Hunger Games arena, it actually spends more time outside the arena than inside. The first hour-and-a-half or so is spent on the political struggles of President Snow trying to contain Katniss’ power over the people as well as Katniss’ reaction to her growing popularity. Jennifer Lawrence does so much with her face through these scenes, showing equal parts strength and bravery as well as disgust for the Capitol and their stranglehold on the people. Though she is defined by her tenacity, she is still young and vulnerable, with what seems like the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her bravery even inspires the people of the Capitol, such as Effie (Elizabeth Banks), who cannot help but cry when sending “her tributes” back into the arena.
|Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire|
The film beautifully captures the complexity of Katniss and what she has become to the people of Panem, so it’s a shame that this complexity does not ultimately translate to her love interests. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) still has the personality of a 2×4 and barely has any chemistry with Katniss. While Peeta has nice moments scattered throughout the film, he too fails to fully connect. Though the awkward relationship between Katniss and Peeta is largely the point in and of itself, he gets even less to do than he got to do in the first film.
The audience is introduced to a slew of new characters, from the dashing Finnick (Sam Claflin) to the clever Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), to what may be the best new character, the cynical Johanna (Jena Malone). The film gives them enough time to develop into unique characters without losing focus of the tight, well-crafted script. Though there are certain inconsistencies with the plot, particularly involving the logistics of the Hunger Games arena, the film ultimately focuses on what’s most important: Katniss’ journey. By the time she reaches the end of the film, her steely determination and hatred for the Capitol is enough of a teaser for the next Hunger Games film while also providing a climactic conclusion to her arc throughout Catching Fire.
When looking back on 2013, it’s tough to find a better blockbuster than The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Despite only being the second film in the franchise, the characters feel lived in, the world is gradually expanding and the overall arc of the series is becoming stronger. Admittedly, Catching Fire was my least favorite book in the novel trilogy, but the film’s energy and overall quality make it the rare film that’s better than the book.
MVP: Jennifer Lawrence
Best Art Direction
Best Original Song: “Atlas” by Coldplay
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects
There is an awkwardness to the message of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which isn’t a fault of the film in the slightest, but actually an irony of the film franchise’s massive success. The films satirize the government and media working hand in hand with corporations to distract the public with trivial bullshit like celebrity gossip and reality television in order to hide what’s really going on in the world. The people become so complacent in a “that’s just how things are done” mentality that there’s no reason to rise up against the powers that be. With the Hunger Games franchise, the media campaign has focused on packaging the films as action-adventure tales of bravery, with the lead character being played by America’s Sweetheart. CoverGirl has their own line of “Capitol-inspired” makeup and nail polish while Subway features a new line of “Fiery Footlong” sandwiches. Remember, this is the same film series that features kids killing other kids for the purpose of entertainment, a series whose entire point is standing up to the powers that be, no matter how important they may seem. Yet, the government/corporations’ message is the same as the Capitol’s: cover yourself in makeup, stuff yourself with high-calorie food and go pay to see kids killing other kids on the big screen! Hopefully that way, you won’t be too upset when we’re taking away your rights, withholding the truth about the atrocities we’ve committed and sending your kids off to really kill each other.
The third and final films in The Hunger Games series are Mockingjay Part 1 and 2. The Mockingjay novel features an all-out war between the people and the Capitol. We’ll see if this triggers any big ideas for people in the moviegoing audience. Even so, the powers that be will continue to miss the point entirely, with McDonalds probably coming out with a Mockingjay Mac that’s supposed to make you feel like a hero but ultimately puts you into a lethargic state of complacency.