The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

 
Districtly brilliant.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

 

I was pleasantly surprised by the original Hunger Games. After a misguided advertising campaign sold it as “the next Twilight“, I wasn’t exactly pawing at the multiplex doors to be let in. However, I ended up really enjoying it and bought all three books soon after. It’s an intelligent sci-fi series that has a lot to say, but doesn’t beat you round the head with it. The main character, Katniss, is a strong female lead without being a ballbuster, is involved in a love triangle without being a soppy, boy-obsessed milkdrip and generally is a fantastic role model to anyone reading or watching her adventures, not just the target demographic of young girls. Also, whilst I do like the film, can we stop with the “Battle Royale with cheese” shit now? Hunger Games has so much more going on than BR ever did and, to my mind at least, even does better with the central conceit. For those of you sputtering with indignation right now, knocking over all your “kawaii” desk decorations to write me an essay on how wrong I am about the cultural significance of this scene or that bit of dialogue, please do not underestimate my apathy.

“Remember who the real enemy is.”

After basically giving the system a one-fingered salute (or more accurately, three) at the end of the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to District 12 rich and famous, living a life of wealth in Victor’s Village, a walled community built for Hunger Games winners. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears an uprising from the districts as Katniss has inspired hope and revolution with her very public defiance. He turns to new gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for help and the pair conspire to tear down the symbol Katniss has become. They eventually settle on a “Quarter Quell”, a special games made up of past winners, to prove that no-one is safe from the Capitol’s wrath. Catching Fire is solid film, although in terms of basic story beats its pretty similar to the first. It wisely focuses on the social unrest and revolutionary aspects of Panem, rather than just being happy to trot out the death and violence of the games again. It does what all good sequels do and improves on practically every aspect of its predecessor. Jennifer Lawrence is still fantastic as Katniss, giving the sort of layered performance that’s incredibly rare in this type of film.The previous games have taken their toll on her and she has some real PTSD stuff going on. I warmed to Josh Hutcherson more in this film than I did in the last one. He’s still the weakest link in a great cast, but he’s serviceable, with the script affording him more depth. In fact, there’s a real effort to dimensionalise what were previously one-note characters. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie who irritated me in the original, actually comes across as a proper character this time round. Sutherland’s President Snow has a lot more genuine menace about him too, with some fascinating glimpses into his personal life. Of the new blood, Sam Clafin is fun as Finnick Odair, especially when he has the lovable mute grandmother Mags (Lynn Cohen) on his back, Yoda style. Felix Leiter himself Jeffrey Wright is incredibly likeable as technical whiz Beetee and makes a great double act with Amanda Plummer’s Wiress. Jena Malone simply steals scenes as the angry, axe-wielding Johanna Mason, right from her impromptu elevator strip onwards. Ol’ reliable PSH is predictably brilliant too.

The film takes a surprisingly long time to actually get to the titular games. A lot of time and effort is spent getting the audience up to speed with the current state of Panem and the shady government dealings going on behind closed gilded doors. None of the book’s nastiness has been skimped on here. Whilst the first Hunger Games felt toothless and compromised at times, this feels legit brutal, bruv. There’s public floggings, executions, grevious injuries- the lot. There may have been a few CGI blood shots edited out, but I doubt there’s a proper uncut version waiting in the wings for when it comes to shiny disc. I got the feeling Lawrence was pushing the rating to breaking point, rather than shying away from it like Ross.

Weirdly, the one film Catching Fire reminds me of is Back to the Future Part II. Whilst there are no hoverboards (much to my disappointment) it does share the same spirit of messing with the established framework of the first film and toying with audiences’ expectations. As I said previously, the story beats are the same as the original Hunger Games, but they all have neat little twists on them. For instance, instead of smiling and waving at the cameras when the tributes are brought in via carriage, Katniss and Peeta are instructed to remain stoic and defiantly ignore the crowd this time round. When the interview segment gets underway, instead of playing the game and speaking in cloying “just happy to be here” sentiments, all the tributes are working different angles to try and get the games cancelled by swaying public opinion, be it by admission of anger at the system, tearfully telling the insanely enameled Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) about a love back home or Peeta’s inspired whopper about him and Katniss. It’s clever stuff, make no mistake.

Most of the problems with the first film have been ironed out. The direction from Francis Lawrence is a lot more assured than Gary Ross’. Whilst Ross had an overreliance on shaky cam to obscure the nastier stuff, Lawrence uses it sparingly, which is a great relief for those of us who are fans of seeing what’s going on. The production budget has been upped considerably too, with some amazing futuristic vistas on display and a greater look at the decadent Capitol. The writing also got worked over, with Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt replacing Ross, Billy Ray and series author Suzanne Collins. The quality of the writing has been upgraded from “passable” to “actually pretty damn good”. Characters no longer awkwardly blurt out motivations or thoughts and . In fact, if I may compare it to Twilight for a moment, this is what the Twi-films should have been doing when it came to sequels, instead of aggressively sticking to the god-awful writing and terrible special effects, all the while upping the product placement and soundtrack shilling. The Twilight films showed nothing but open contempt for its audience. All the gains from the first Hunger Games feel like they’ve been plowed into this one to make it the best film it can be.

“Katniss Everdeen is a symbol. We don’t have to destroy her, just her image. Show them that she’s one of us now. Let them rally behind that. They’re gonna hate her so much they just might kill her for you.”

I think that’s the one thing that’s holding Catching Fire back from 5 star Valhalla. Everything else has been brought up to scratch, but the limitations of the source material are starting to show.  The first book is genuinely great, but the quality then acts on a sliding scale right through to the end.The film stops frustratingly short of the climax of the book, but I understand what they’re going for. My only concern now is that Mockingjay was my least favourite book and they’re making two damn films out of it. This could be the series highpoint. This is the series’ Empire Strikes Back. It’s darker and more confident in what it wants to do. It’s bloody brilliant. Highly recommended.