Sunday, December 8, 2013

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, frightening images
Running Time: 146 Minutes

After surviving the 74th Hunger Games, the tributes from District 12, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), return to a world in turmoil. Both suffer from nightmares after their traumatic experiences, but they're forced to relive it when they must go on a Victory Tour of the 12 districts. Worse, the two are forced to continue their sham romance for the cameras, something Katniss knows causes deep pain for Peeta. He loves her, but her affections are for Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

But what Katniss and Peeta find on the tour shocks them even more: the people appear to be resisting the forces of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). They see Katniss as a symbol of hope and rebellion, a symbol Snow is eager to wipe away. Together with the new master of the Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow plots Katniss' downfall. To turn the people against Katniss, Heavensbee suggests, they must make them hate her.

But with each attempt to discredit her, the people rally more and more for the cause of freedom. And so now the game is on: Katniss is called back into the Hunger Games for a special all-stars edition, where she and Peeta will face off against the ruthless winners of previous years.

Ah, sequels. We've trod this territory often before on this blog. Here we are again for the sequel to "The Hunger Games," an impressive action piece starring the ever-more-impressive Jennifer Lawrence. "Catching Fire" is in every sense the sequel, as the events of the film call heavily upon the events of the first one. But while "Catching Fire" is, like its predecessor, a by and large entertaining film, it also has flaws - some of which I suspect are more the fault of the source material than the film itself.

My biggest complaint is that "Catching Fire" seems so intent on aping the structure of the first film that it doesn't really stop to consider whether it should. Perhaps the filmmakers thought a film called "The Hunger Games" that didn't actually feature any Hunger Games wouldn't really sell? The problem is that the film practically grinds to a halt once we finally get to the Hunger Games portion of it.

Now, this third act is gripping and well made, but the entire plot disappears in favor of a variety of CGI-laden obstacles for Katniss and her friends to overcome. To its credit, it avoids aping the first film in that the danger feels less like it comes from the tributes' opponents and more from their environment, which is now constructed to be as hostile as possible with poisonous fog, tidal waves, lightning strikes and killer monkeys.

Ultimately the issue is that this foray into the film's biggest action setpieces doesn't integrate well into the plot - at all. Indeed, the film's final moments are an info-dump of exposition about what's been happening while Katniss was busy running around in the woods fighting monkeys and fleeing flesh-eating fog. Sure, we know that Snow has maneuvered Katniss into the Games in order to kill her, but Katniss is left entirely in the dark about a lot of things going on outside the games and even within them.

This is another problem that might be blamed on the structure of the film - Katniss really has little idea what's actually going on until the last seconds of the movie, and that's the cliffhanger that leads into the third film. So ultimately "Catching Fire" amounts to nearly two and a half hours of setup, which, even as entertaining as it is, feels somewhat inconsequential when taken on its own. "Catching Fire," then, really needn't be nearly as long as it is.

Still, there's a lot to love here. Jennifer Lawrence does another fine job as Katniss, often doing a better job selling small moments for her conflicted character. Occasionally, her dialogue can come off as flat, but that's more a problem with the fact that the script sometimes saddles her with some groan-worthy exposition, but I'd say 95% of the time she's great. Of particular note is a scene in which Katniss undergoes a "test" in which she must display a skill to some of the higher-ups, including Heavensbee, and the project she picks is a grin-inducing "Fuck you" that shows off the kind of power the character can have (and Lawrence) in getting you to root for her.

Also of note are Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz, returning to their roles as Effie and Cinna, part of Katniss and Peeta's PR team. Though their roles are small, both actors actually do a great job bringing them to life. Banks strikes a critical balance between her over-the-top pageantry and also being able to show genuine emotion through it. Her last scene in the film is fantastic, and the same can be said for Kravitz, who gets even less screentime but uses it all very well.

Director Francis Lawrence takes over for Gary Ross, who made the first film, and doesn't do much to change the visual style from "The Hunger Games." There's not much color in this film, which exists in a dreary gray-blue world of the poor, downtrodden Districts. In the Capital, the film takes on a strange mixture of Las Vegas and Vaudeville by way of Coruscant, with lots of high technology and splashes of bold color.

The script keeps the dreary tone from overwhelming the film with bleakness by peppering in a good amount of droll humor and yet more biting satire of celebrity-focused society. If only the third act didn't seem so out of place, or the film itself so incomplete, "Catching Fire" would surely stand tall over its predecessor. It takes its characters to interesting places emotionally, and has a lot of interesting concepts at play that ultimately just disappear two-thirds of the way through, and that's a shame.

See Also
The Hunger Games (2012)

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