Ok, I have a fundamental problem with the very existence of The Hunger Games as a movie franchise. I’m surely not the first person to say this, but these are issues that bother me profoundly and are keeping me from truly embracing the movies. The problem, of course, is the fact that these movies are a product. Considering the message of the films and the book series by Suzanne Collins on which they’re based, I feel like this whole enterprise is a very hypocritical one. David Bax, of the amazing Battleship Pretension podcast has used a similar example in the past, saying how much it irritates him that a movie like Sweet Home Alabama tries to argue that simple country life is the best when it is obvious none of the people involved in the making of that film believe that message. That is kind of the irritation I feel for the success of The Hunger Games.
I don’t mind the irony of the movie arguing the “hunger games” themselves are an inhuman institution while millions of people get incredibly excited to watch them unfold on their local movie screens. But I do mind that the people from Lionsgate (the studio behind the film) see it fit to have a movie that stands against mindless consumerism and superficiality of the “Capitol” that at the same time has its own Covergirl makeup line. What am I supposed to make of that? The movie makes me want to fight the system and turns out the system is the guy who’s putting out the movie? I know it’s a little innocent from my part to not expect this kind of thing from Hollywood studios, and that Lionsgate’s marketing around Catching Fire aren’t too far from what is done with any other franchise, and that this is, at the end of the day, just another product, but dammit if this is going a bit too far. I’m not a big reactionary guy, but this is the kind of thing that makes me want to say “fuck the system, man!”. Anyway, that doesn’t have much to do with the actual quality of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a movie, which is actually rather good.
I had my fair share of issues with the first Hunger Games film, which I found to be just a so-so film. I am happy to report that most of the problems I had with the first movie quality-wise have been addressed and improved upon. The most important one is Catching Fire seems to have a much more nuanced and interesting point of view towards the dystopian world these characters inhabit. That is one of the advantages of being the second film in a series and not having to present us with a complete new world for the first time, but the amount of time Catching Fire dedicates to giving us small glimpses to make this world richer is worthy of praise. From the very beginning, in which we see the emotional toll participating in the Hunger Games has brought upon Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the movie is already willing to work around the main plot to give us insightful details.
This M.O. continues as Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) make their way through a sort of press tour dedicated to the Victors of the Games. We get to see more shades to the situation the people of Panem are in and their inhability to do anything about it than we did in the first film. The seeds of revolution are in the air and for every on-the-nose beating by the “peacekeeper” police, we get character moments that make me think the makers of this movie have really thought about making something good. The best of these kind of moments comes from what I found to be a highly unexpected place, when Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a character that so far had been portrayed as basically the essence of the Capitol’s frivolity shows there are much more complex and human feelings going inside her. It’s a development that doesn’t play a huge role in the film, but that I am glad the filmmakers (led by director Francis Lawrence) decided to keep, as it makes a big difference in the quality of the film.
One thing that was a weakness in the previous movie, and remains so in Catching Fire is that the most boring and unexcited part of the movie are the “Hunger Games” themselves. This time, it’s especially irritating because there is much more interesting stuff about revolution going on somewhere else that we just can;t see. This time, evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) puts a spin on the games. In order to eliminate Katniss and the revolutionary thoughts she’s inspiring, he decides to make this edition of the “Games” a sort of all-star season, drawing the participants from previous winners of the games. This is an improvement over the first film’s game, not only in that you sort of avoid the problem of depicting children killing each other on screen, but also because previous winners make for more interesting characters than scared and violent teens. What still doesn’t work, however, is the Deus Ex Machina aspect of the games and its traps. It all feels too systematic to make me truly excited by what’s going on screen, not to mention the visual effects -although they are a big improvement on the first film- are still not entirely convincing. This last thing about the effects it’s kind of a pity, considering how great the film looks for the most part. It seems like knowing this was going to be a huge success kept Lionsgate from holding back on any expense, since the film looks pretty incredible, especially if you compare it to the uninspired look of its predecessor.
The most important thing that keeps the movie from being great, which is something that seems to be a problem with many young adult fantasy adaptations, is how bland the characters at the center of the story can be. This is what I call Harry Potter Syndrome, when the lead in your movie or novel has to be an entry point for the audience and so you make him kind of righteous, and nice, but not all that interesting. I have to say that in the spectrum of such characters, Katniss is definitely amongst the better ones (with Twilight‘s Bella probably being the worst). I really appreciate, for example, how amongst the whole love triangle shenanigans (and you don’t need me telling you to know there is one), Katniss finds a moment to point out to one of her suitors how romance couldn’t be further away from being her priority. She has to worry about this oppressive world that might kill her and her family! At the same time, though, the character is not the most fun or interesting one to watch, which is what happens when your character’s main goal is to put others before her and always do the right thing. In that sense, I have to give credit where credit is due, and congratulate Jennifer Lawrence and whoever decided to cast her in this role. I am not as in love with Lawrence as the whole world around me seems to be, but she is undoubtedly a really good actress, and it’s to her credit that I can tolerate how many times Katniss screams in terror when witnessing a horrific act in this movie.
The same couldn’t be said about the closest we have to a second lead, and that is Peeta. I don’t meant o diss on Josh Hutcherson, because he’s been good in other movies (The Kids Are All Right, for example), but he is not very good in the role. But I don’t blame him, I mean, I don’t know if any actor could have given a good performance playing such a non-entity of character as Peeta. Hutcherson even manages to find a few good moments to play off of (one involves him calming a character while looking at the sky), but if you think Katniss is too righteous, then you will get diabetes watching the sweet things Peeta is up to. The movies weakest passages are undoubtedly those that focus on the romance, and there is a lot of that. On the other hand, though, Catching Fire benefits from one of the Harry Potter Syndrome’s side effects, and that is that even if the leads are not all that great, the supporting characters make up for that. And as in the Harry Potter series, the key here is to cast interesting actors. We get the return of Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland (wonderfully evil as President Snow) as well as the addition of characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and my personal favorite, Jena Malone, who is just delightfully energetic as Johanna Mason.
Ultimately, the power of Catching Fire lies in its ending. It goes a very specific goal in its final moments, and by all means it achieves what it set out to do. The climax comes at an unexpected moment (I didn’t even realized it was the climax until after it had happened) and presents us with a new path for the series that I have to admit, made me very excited for what is to come. At the same time as it is exciting, though, the ending is kind of frustrating, considering how the movie cuts off at absolutely the most interesting moment in the whole movie, but hey, that’s one of the difficulties of being the middle chapter. I wasn’t very optimistic for this series after The Hunger Games, but after this movie, count on me to be there when Mockingjay premieres next year.
Grade: 7 out of 10 (worth watching)