The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) – Directed by Francis Lawrence – Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, and Amanda Plummer.
Click here for a review of THE HUNGER GAMES.
I generally hate movies where the lead character spends the whole story being miserable about their life. It is to the credit of Jennifer Lawrence that while Katniss Everdeen spends almost all of this film being completely miserable, I not only greatly enjoyed THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, but completely understood and empathized with the character.
Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word. It’s hard to have a good time watching a film with this dire of a setting. THE HUNGER GAMES is a remarkable phenomenon, in that it’s all rather thoroughly depressing. There’s a lot of window dressing here to counterbalance the dreariness of having people kill each other for mass entertainment/subjugation, and the filmmakers (Gary Ross in the director’s chair last time, Francis Lawrence this time and in the two remaining films) and, I assume, Suzanne Collins (I read the first book, liked it well enough, but didn’t see any reason to read on), do a bang-up job of making us really hate the Capitol in order to root for characters who are rightly miserable. Without all the crazy costumes and wigs and luxury, I wonder if the film would collapse under the weight of all its emotional heaviness.
I loved the first HUNGER GAMES movie, and while CATCHING FIRE is a definite step back, it’s still a very good film. I’m one of the few people who absolutely loves Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, and one of the main reasons that I hold it in such high esteem is that Zombie shows how screwed up having an experience like being chased around by a nut job with a knife and a mask would be for a person. In the sequel, Laurie Strode is seriously hurting, and while it’s painful to watch, it rings true to me. The same thing applies to CATCHING FIRE. It’s not fun watching Katniss struggle with the consequence of her triumph in the previous year’s Hunger Games. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is determined to make her pay for her manipulation of the audience by turning her into a pro-Government puppet, while the crowds from the poorer districts Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) visit on their victory tour are determined to force her to lead them into a rebellion.
It’s an impossible position for a girl and boy who just want to ensure their family’s safety, and Lawrence and Hutcherson do stellar work getting this across to the audience. Peeta wants to be emotional, but Katniss’ private rejection/public embracing of him causes him to shut down – at least in terms of what we see on the screen. While he spends good portions of the film walking around with varying expressions of “wounded puppy dog” on his face, there is a strength to his character that is impressive in its quietness. He’s the sidekick and the film treats him this way, so when it’s revealed that he’s been doing more, and moping less, off-screen, it gives the film a bit of narrative kick that it needs.
Again, this protects Katniss’ misery and the integrity of the story.
The film does this with other characters, too, notably Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Finnick (Sam Claflin), and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the new head Gamemaker. CATCHING FIRE is a smartly made movie (which is different than being a smart movie, which it only sort of is), placing the hurting Katniss in the middle and building life around her: through the Capitol’s brightly-colored pomp, Peeta’s lovesick steadiness, the determined rebellion fantasy of Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the growing self-actualization of Prim (Willow Shields), the cartoonish hatred of Snow, and the manipulative vision of Heavensbee.
Ironically, the film is at its most lifeless when it’s in the Hunger Games. It’s not much fun watching a woman old enough to toss jewelry off the back of a Titanic salvage ship commit suicide by running into poisonous gas to save the young folk. CATCHING FIRE rushes us through the training sequence and Games because there’s not much new to say. The Games this time are merely functional, getting us to the rebellion story, and because of the focus on Katniss, what could make these Games interesting (the rebellious faction that swells up around her) is muted.
As much as the pre-Games story is downbeat, it’s far more interesting. The story of Katniss dealing with the repercussions of her actions, and of the people forcing her into dealing with the lingering repercussions, makes for a highly engaging watch. It’s not fun, by any means, but it is compelling. When Effie (Elizabeth Banks) comes to District 12 for the reaping (the pulling of names to designate this year’s participants in the Games, which will be comprised solely of past winners), and she stands on stage with only Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch, the defeated emptiness of the crowd contrasts wonderfully with Effie’s effervescence.
Scenes like the reaping are what makes the success of THE HUNGER GAMES franchise so compelling to me. Who wants to watch this? It’s not fun, it’s not upbeat, it’s not sexy, and yet it made more money worldwide than all but four other 2013 releases. So who wants to watch this? Lots of people – me included. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise is easily the most serious, adult, and thoughtful of all these YA franchises making the rounds, and they’ve stuffed it with a wealth of talented actors to make minor roles pop on the screen.
But back to this idea that the movie is at its worst when the titular Games are taking place: the story of Katniss Everdeen seems to have largely outgrown the Games, and the film loses its momentum when we have to watch the film devolve into a rerun of the first movie. Much like Star Wars accepted that it was actually Han Solo’s story in The Empire Strikes Back, CATCHING FIRE would have benefited from seeing the Games minimized in their importance. Instead, we get the compelling first half of the film followed by a less-impressive Games sequence. All of those reveals of things happening behind the scenes work, but I can’t help but wonder if the film would have been better off being Peeta’s story instead of Katniss’ since his arc (like Han’s compared to Luke’s in Empire) is far more compelling this time around. Instead of that, however, we have a Peeta who spends large chunks of this film in emotional carbonate while on-screen, yet is constantly thinking behind the scenes.
CATCHING FIRE is the only film in the top 5 highest grossing films of 2013 that doesn’t seem to care if you have a good time. Iron Man 3, Frozen, Despicable Me 2, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug all want you to have fun, even if the stories themselves are sometimes very serious. CATCHING FIRE is content to just be what it is – a rather grim story about a dystopian America that puts far too much pressure on the shoulders of one kid who has way more help than she realizes.
I admire the skill that went into making CATCHING FIRE. I admire the direction and the performances. I think the first half of the film is highly compelling, despite it’s downer vibe, and while the film takes a dip once President Snow decides to turn the Hunger Games into an all-star season of Survivor, I was engaged with the film right through to the end.
I’m not convinced that CATCHING FIRE is really a story in its own right, though. The film feels like one big exercise to pivot from the first to third movies, and the characters with the most interesting stories are too often left to have those stories take place off-screen.