Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games Catching Fire Poster

After the massively popular young adult franchise became a massively successful film last year, it was obvious that a followup was coming.  The adaptation of the second in the trilogy, Catching Fire, promises to do just that at the box office this weekend.  Catch fire that is, you know…Why do movie reviews lend themselves to bad puns so easily?

I am unashamed to admit I am a big fan of this franchise, beginning with the books.  Yes, I went into this movie expecting to love it, but I would also be the first to tell if you if it failed.

When last left the world of Panem, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) had just defied the Capitol by managing to come out of the Hunger Games as dual victors.  Just in case you have been living under a rock, The Hunger Games are a yearly battle to the death among teenaged tributes from the poorer districts of the nation.  Simultaneously gruesome entertainment and a method for keeping the people controlled through fear, the Games have been going on for 74 years.

As victors, Katniss and Peeta are media darlings of the Capitol, especially because of their supposed “star crossed romance.”  The film opens hours before Katniss is supposed to leave for the Victory Tour with Peeta, visiting each district whose children they killed in order to win.  She’s spending her time doing what she does best – hunting in the woods.  Soon she’s joined by Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who is, perhaps, the person she actually cares about most.  At first it looks like it could be just like old times.  It’s quickly apparent though that the Games have left Katniss damaged in ways that the Capitol doctors could never heal.  An incredibly potent scene just minutes in, sets the tone for the whole film, and it’s quickly evident that Francis Lawrence understands, and is going to use, the full weight of this story.

The very first thing I noticed was the camera work.  No more Gary Ross shaky cam.  I didn’t mind it so much in the first one, but I think most people can agree that the handheld look was one of the few negatives about the first film.  New director Francis Lawrence has opted for a much more controlled look.

It’s obvious that this sequel has gotten an upgrade in terms of budget and scope, but it does not go overboard – everything look better while still keeping a feeling and aesthetic consistent with the first chapter.  Visually, the movie is fantastic.  The IMAX sequences in the arena are beautiful, the costumes impeccable, the special effects vastly improved.

The supporting cast is too vast to give everyone the full time they deserve, but suffice to say, nobody disappoints.  All the characters are cast well, and are great to see realized on screen.  Newcomers, including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, and Amanda Plummer join Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald SutherlandToby Jones, and Willow Shields in one of the most incredible and diverse casts you will see on the big screen.

Incredibly, even before we get close to, you know, the part where people are killing each other, the level of emotion in this film is twice that of The Hunger Games.  Remember how you felt when Katniss first volunteers to take the place of her sister (Willow Shields)?  Jennifer Lawrence brings that same wrenching intensity to scenes all throughout the movie, right from the beginning.  And she’s not the only one.  Josh Hutcherson as Peeta shows that he can have you reaching for the tissues as well.  He’s matured a bit and has more presence here than before.  There is the personal emotional conflict between Katniss and Gale and Peeta.  Even worse is the psychological war that is raging inside the mind of Katniss Everdeen as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) makes it crystal clear – even more directly than in the book – just what the vast consequences of merely her existence may be.

As can be expected, there are some changes made from the book.  Some scenes are shortened, or cut, which means that some important things – like how Katniss realizes that some districts may be rebelling because of her – have to happen a little differently.  There is very little actually changed in a significant way though.  There are some additional scenes, again, with Snow, and now Plutarch, behind the curtain, so to speak.  Once again, we get to see what’s going on through Snow’s head in a way that we never were able to before from Katniss’s point of view.  In the end, though, this is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the book – one of the best book to movie adaptations I have ever seen.  Even with some small changes, the story, the characters, and the themes are still the same, and are often improved and expanded upon.  I have seen some films – Watchmen – so concerned with pleasing fans that the final product is so faithful to the original material that it fails on screen.  I have seen adaptations – City of Ember – treat the original material so loosely that it is barely the same story at all.  If ever there was a golden example of how to avoid either peril, this is the film.

I had my doubts about having Mockingjay, the final book in the trilogy, split into two movies – not anymore.  This is a long film – it’s just under two and a half hours.  But it never feels long, and even at the length it is, there are still parts I wish I could have seen more of.  I wanted to see even more of the wild and crazy Caesar (Tucci), I wanted to see more of life in Victor’s Village.  I wanted to see more survival in the arena.  It’s not because those parts are terribly lacking, but they are just so good, and could have been been so easily expanded into something even better if we just had another two hours to play with.  So I have no doubt the extra time that two films allows for will be put to good use by Francis Lawrence and the writers.

I feel like I have to mention the incredible level of emotion here again.  You’re expecting all the moments, but they still hit you hard, they are so intense.  The grave reality of this society trying to grasp onto a taste of hope for the first time in years is played like a musical instrument.  The consequences of the first film are beginning to be fully realized – by the characters, and to the audience.  This is a powerful movie.

Sure there are a couple things that were cut or shortened that I wish weren’t.  Some of the romance seems a little juvenile at times, despite the seriousness of the situation.  Little things bugged me now and then if I really tried to pick out little things to bug me.  Overall, though, this movie is a big improvement on the first film.  And I really enjoyed the first one.  It is going to please Hunger Games fans immensely, but it is just a really good film on its own as well.

Mrs. Hamster says:

“Even though I knew what was coming, I still cried several times.”

My rating:  Five out of Five hats

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Trailer:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire burns up 4,163 theaters, November 22