Burning love – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

By Simon Miraudo
November 20, 2013

In the arena where budding franchises battle to the death, only The Hunger Games still stands, the young, mangled corpses of non-starters such as The Mortal Instruments and The Host slain at its feet. Catching Fire, the follow-up to the hugely successful and shockingly good first Hunger Games movie, is its blood-around-the-mouth victory lap. Yet, much like its ever-enraged heroine Katniss Everdeen, the flick is not keen to rest on its laurels; unwilling to sup from a jewel-encrusted goblet while being gawked upon by undiscriminating fans. Incoming director Francis Lawrence – replacing the original’s Gary Ross, unselected in this year’s Reaping – brings with him a less frantic pace and wider scope, resulting in an remarkably improved entry. He also brings a far stiller camera. That helps a lot too.

In her most difficult performance to date, Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss as a beloved media personality who seems to only increase in popularity with every public gaffe or outspoken declaration. Following her victory at the 74th Hunger Games – for newcomers, it’s a kill-or-be-killed televised spectacle orchestrated by a controlling government to instil fear in its once-rebellious populous – she’s haunted by her victims, and those she couldn’t save. Under order of the demonically-bearded President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss must travel the twelve districts of future-Earth (called ‘Panem’) and distract the citizens from their terrible existence by flaunting her faux-love with fellow victor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), leaving behind her actual love, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). But a rebellion is rising, unwittingly instigated by Ms. Everdeen’s feisty attitude. Snow retaliates by increasing the military’s presence across Panem, and, on the eve of the 75th Hunger Games, pushing gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, can you believe it?) to craft a complicated arena for past champions to compete against one another in. His thinking: Katniss can scarcely remain an icon of mutiny if she’s seen trying to murder her precious Peeta, or, even better, slaughtered on live television.

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

Catching Fire would very much like to be considered a modern day ‘Empire Strikes Back‘ and boy, this thing is so good, I’m inclined to christen it as much. Not because it’s necessarily as good as that Star Wars sequel – heavensbee, no – but because it shares so much of its DNA. Author Suzanne Collins surely – and, if so, sagely – turned to that text for an example of how to continue a sci-fi tale effectively before penning Catching Fire; certainly Francis Lawrence looked to it for inspiration. From the expanded universe, to the melancholy, cliffhanger ending, this second chapter reeks of Hoth breath. It even has a Lando Calrissian in the form of brash, morally-questionable hunk Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin); one of the former champs with whom Katniss forms an uneasy alliance during the Hunger Games. This isn’t the only sequel to evoke Empire. (See: The Matrix Reloaded. Actually, don’t.) I’d say, however, it’s the best to do so this century.

The aforementioned Claflin is a fun addition to the cast, especially when compared to wet blankets Peeta and Gale. Still, the last thing this franchise needed was another dude for Katniss to be romantically entertained by. It’s a testament to Lawrence’s talents as an actress that she can juggle all these suitors and form individual, distinguishable relationships with each. The sheer wattage of her charisma is so, it takes three full-grown human men to match it. (Well, two and a half full-grown men. Hutcherson’s getting there.) Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz wonderfully reprise their essential roles as Katniss’ cheerleaders, while recruits Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer introduce an odd, inscrutable tenor to proceedings, their allegiances remaining ambiguous right until the end. Hoffman is the most interesting draw; softly spoken, he plays Plutarch like a man who’s seen the script, always unwavering in his mission. How I wish he shared more scenes with Lawrence. For that – and many, many other reasons – we can look forward to the next instalment, Mockingjay (to be released in two parts).

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

Academy Award-winning writers Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, not Star Wars Episode VII) were charged with bringing this book to the screen, and they took to their task valiantly. Sometimes the script falls back on the habits of bad young-adult novels; the villains in particular seemed to be modelled exclusively on school principals and track stars, while lines of dialogue like “I wish I could freeze this moment and live in it forever,” could not be salvaged by a fleet of Oscar winners, let alone a measly duo. This is, however, the extent of my complaints. Though the picture runs at an engorged 146 minutes, it never feels sluggish, always moving and escalating with the precision of a rollercoaster’s climb. The action is well paced and the dangers feel imminent. We spend more time outside of the Games this time around, and it’s a welcome shift. The world of Panem, as well as the way in which the Districts exist in relation to the French Aristocracy-inspired Capitol (where the one per centers live), is better fleshed out, as is their bizarro media landscape.

Catching Fire doesn’t just increase the action stakes: it goes all in against its satirical targets too. Stanley Tucci once again materialises intermittently as talk-show host Caesar Flickerman, a fake-tanned monster with a maniacal laugh. So much is made by viewers of the central, brutal Hunger Games that not nearly enough is made of the funhouse-mirror madness unfolding around it; a smart and scathing commentary on our own dependence on entertainment as a frivolous diversion from real problems. When Peeta announces Katniss’ (fake) pregnancy live on Caesar’s show, the audience loses their s**t. Seems silly. And yet, this is basically what happened when Beyoncé unveiled her baby bump at the MTV Music Video Awards. That this is even a reference I can make and you can understand goes a way to explaining how incisive this film truly is.

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

To flog a dead horse (or, to call back to my opening paragraph, a dead Host), let me say once more that Catching Fire is an absolutely enthralling adventure with sci-fi smarts and an emotional heart. I could barely believe how much I enjoyed its predecessor and I am left in a similar state of wonder by its successor. Everything’s amplified on this go around, helped by an inflated budget. There’s even an echo of my favourite scene from the first – in which Katniss nervously rises from beneath the earth and onto the Hunger Games field – that feels more harrowing here, for reasons I won’t spoil. The only real problem I have with Catching Fire is that it doesn’t showcase a hip, pilgrim-folk soundtrack like the first one did, favouring instead a lone sad-sack track from ColdplayAnd, I secretly – shamefully – really like Coldplay, so, as far as problems go, I can deal.

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire arrives in Australian cinemas November 21, 2013.

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