A scant 20 months ago the first film in a new franchise of young adult stories hit theaters and quickly became one of the most popular films of that year; The Hunger Games. The film starred Jennifer Lawrence, a talented but not extremely well known actress in the title role. Since that film hit theaters it has made over $400 million in the box office and countless millions in home video and Lawrence won an Oscar for a follow up film (The Silver Linings Playbook). There were three books in the Hunger Games series so it was a forgone conclusion that there would be more movies. So the pieces are all in place for a blockbuster second film that, like its predecessor should “eclipse” the entire Twilight saga (another young adult franchise targeting girls). See what I did there? The big question was can the second film be a better film than the Twilight films and the majority of other trash that’s currently hitting big screens labeled as “young adult”?
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up a while after the events of the first film. Katniss and Peta have returned home and are living separate lives as much as they can and still portray to the world at large that they are in love. One of the toughest things for male viewers of movies like this is to invest in the melodrama of a girl dealing with two suitors. It’s a common occurrence in young adult female storytelling and it’s generally painfully melodramatic which is also a turn off for male viewers. When executed properly this melodrama seems to be a part of the young female fantasy, it has to be because it sure does work on them. The melodrama and the over the top emo moments are all in place in this sequel just as they were in the first film but there’s a difference with this film over others of its ilk: the love triangle and the falsity of it rings truly important to the overall story. The fact that it means something to the story at large in this sci-fi/fantasy setting makes it work much better for the male fan and the female fan alike. That success alone says a lot for the filmmakers. Before the first film hit theaters I read all of the books because I wanted to have a firm base in what I believed was a franchise that was going to have a big impact on pop culture. The first book, even if it did take a lot of license from a Japanese film called Battle Royale, was a good read. The second half of the second book was good, and the third book is just awful. So my hope was that the films would actually improve on the disaster that is the first half of the second book and the entirety of the third book.
To my delight, Catching Fire is worlds better than the book on which it’s based. The big problems with the book came in silly exposition and just plain dumb character moments. The melodrama fell apart and became Twilight stupid too. The film cuts nearly all of that stuff out. If it wasn’t directly connected to the overall story moving forward then it was chopped. Even after removing all of that fat the film still runs two hours and fifteen minutes. A friend leaned over to me early on in the movie and said “well that just cut 20 pages from the book” and I replied “yeah and I couldn’t be happier”. So even at over two hours the film seems to click along at a nice brisk pace. I never found myself checking my watch.
The games were a tool used by the Capitol to keep inhabitants of the various Districts in fear of what they can do and it worked for 75 years. The problem for President Snow and his cohorts is that the creative solution that Katniss conceived for her and Peta’s salvation in their game gave the people in the Districts hope, it empowered them to believe that one person, and a small handful of berries, could make things different. A common element in the first film and the majority of the second film is that Katniss is a pretty selfish girl. She wants to help the people that she loves and herself and has little concern for the world at large. Her attitude isn’t necessarily a bad thing though: she grew up in poverty scrapping away for whatever little food she could hunt or trade for. The way she builds hope for people is literally accidental from her perspective. She was just trying to save herself and Peta in the first film and trying to protect her family in this film and mourning the loss of Rue in public. Katniss is a near Han Solo level anti-hero and only when she’s pushed too far and when she’s literally made angry by the Capitol do things change.
The stakes are raised in this film as they should be in a sequel but the thematic elements and symbolism are executed in a way that the books could only have hoped to do this well. People are fully revealed for who they are in this film as well. In some very creative ways the humanity and inhumanity of various characters is shown not only via action but also by visual design. Effie, a highly underappreciated character for example was entertaining in the first film but amped up even more in this one. Elizabeth is just so much fun and she can deliver on camera too. This is her second best film right after Slither. Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman help take some of the weight of the film off Jennifer Lawrence’s shoulders. Lawrence does carry the film though just like she carried the first one. She has more depth than other actresses in her age group. The complex mix of melancholy, determination, and intelligence, she carries in her eyes works perfectly for this character. As is becoming a trend in this franchise the other young actors are just passable at their craft.
Catching Fire isn’t perfect and sadly the places it stumbles are often lifted right from the book. Katniss learns multiple times about the true uncensored world around through a strategically cracked open door. Wouldn’t these guys get in trouble for leaving the door open all the time? They catch her looking though it the first time and sure enough it’s open again later just when it needs to be. Another hiccup is an extremely convoluted and silly trap some of the pledges build in the games. The description of it and what it’s supposed to do doesn’t work in the movie just as it didn’t work in the book. There are also some points where the melodrama gets laughable but those moments are thankfully cut really short. These complaints are minor though when you consider all of the things the movie gets right. One thing the film does expertly is telegraphing future events in the film. Poor telegraphing slaps you in the face with “Hey look at me this will matter later in the movie!” A good example is the trbble bit in Star Trek Into Darkness. Great telegraphing doesn’t feel like telegraphing at all. When done well when something happens in a film you’ll find yourself thinking “oh yeah that was because of the earlier scene awesome!” I can’t go more into detail because I won’t spoil the film here. There’s also room to argue that the basic outline of this film is nearly a repeat of the first one. There’s some validity to that complaint but when you look closer there’s some brilliant things happening here thematically. Snow and his cronies are using their same old tools to attempt to “quell” the hope of the people which includes media censorship and of course the games. So yes obviously since he’s using the same tricks in his bag many parts of the story are going to feel familiar but this time around the meaning behind these tools is different. Before it was about simple survival for Katniss, but now she’s so much more than a poor girl trying to just make it, whether she wants to be or not. Now it’s all about hope and being a symbol for it, and about revolution.
The action scenes in catching Fire are amped up from the original film and they come off suspenseful and truly exciting. Finally there are some truly beautiful shots in this film from a film appreciation point of view (and no I’m not talking about the PG-13 level naked girl). A huge portion of Catching Fire was shot in the full IMAX film format and it was stunning to behold. I’m a fan of the popping from 35mm to full IMAX and back again that’s been common in previous film such as The Dark Knight Rises and the last Mission Impossible film. When well-done the switch to the large format can have an actual impact on the story. It worked well a few times in The Dark Knight and even better in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol. Catching Fire opts to save the IMAX format for the actual games and it is a brilliant decision. The image literally pops from small to large format right when Katniss hits the arena and it stays large until the games are over. The image switch adds a level of importance to the games which plays right in line with the story.
Perhaps the biggest success of this film, something started in the previous one, is that a hero that little girls can look up to has been created. There were no heroes for little girls in Twilight no matter what you might think unless you want your daughter to grow up to be little more than a cypher. Katniss is strong, self-sufficient, brave, and smart. The other thing this film succeeds at that was just begun in the first Hunger Games is a story that can appeal to a male audience has been executed. What should have been a toss away young adult franchise is truly becoming not just “a good young adult franchise” but simply “a good series of movies”. The Hunger Games Catching Fire rises above its limitations and delivers on story, action, and drama, just plain good stuff!