I remember liking The Hunger Games overall, but I also remember being baffled by large parts of it. I have not read, nor have the inclination to read, the written trilogy that these films are based off of, so could only express my confusion at how shallowly the universe was presented, with so many unanswered questions that even basic exposition sequences would have solved. Add in some shaky cam, a disappointing approach to the inherent violence of the story and some disappointing production details, and you’d think The Hunger Games was ripe for an NFB panning.
But it had Jennifer Lawrence in one of the stand-out roles of the year, matched ably by the other cast members. It had a decently presented story despite the shallowness of the setting, and it left off on a suitable sort-of cliff-hanger.
Now, the second instalment, with a new director and some new directions, is hitting theatres, smashing all sorts of records in the process, though that seems to happen twice a year from what I can see. The success of The Hunger Games has resulted in the sequel being fairly rushed into theatres, so, does Catching Fire match the commercial hype and justify such a speedy delivery?
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and faux-lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return home to District 12 after winning the 74th Hunger Games. Despite being used as a propaganda symbol for the ruling government under President Snow (Donald Sutherland) the two become manifestations of hope and resistance for the downtrodden masses. With Snow unwilling to tolerate this, Katniss, Peeta, their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) find themselves drawn into two deadly arenas: that of the Hunger Games once more, but also revolution.
Catching Fire opens with a shot of Katniss crouched, tense, over a lake in winter. She seems utterly rigid, not distracted by the elements or anything else. A faint twang overplays the scene, with a vaguely Japanese feel, as if we are being introduced to a Samurai warrior, fresh from defending a village for a bowlful of rice. Every indication is of a warrior, but a damaged one.
Catching Fire is the story of this damaged warrior, a young girl who has suffered through an experience of almost unmatched severity, forced to kill people barely old enough to be called adults in order to survive. We open on that girl, and Catching Fire is expertly framed, story wise, between its opening and closing shots. It is a plot based around Katniss Everdeen finding a measure of healing – and determination.
And it is a good story, one that I was more than engaged with for the entirety of its running time. But while I was entertained as well, it is undeniable that Catching Fire has some fundamental problems, having created some new ones while trying to solve the old ones.
The first act see’s the establishment of the new way of things, of Katniss and Peeta’s enslavement to the Panem propaganda machine. And it establishes this at great length. Any pretension that Catching Fire has to action or thrills gets lost at the wayside in the opening section, as the viewer will be treated to an extended bout of speeches, angst, more speeches, worry and unsubtle machinations from the antagonists.
It isn’t that the first act is insufferably dull. It’s full of great scenes and some great material; there is just a lot of it. It takes a very long time for the story of Catching Fire to go anywhere past the initial set-up of the two phony lovers having to keep up a pretence, and director Francis Lawrence is determined that you should have to undergo this experience in thorough detail. The Hunger Games got this stuff out of the way very fast last year – too fast in many respects, but middle grounds aren’t hard to come by – and Catching Fire just suffers from a slow pace in its beginning. It’s a middle chapter, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t aim to leave hearts racing just a little bit more than it actually does.
By the time it is announced that Katniss and Peeta will have to enter the Games again, you will be willing to overlook what appears at first to be a pretty blatant piece of replication from the first instalment, such is the apparent length it takes to get to that point. Again, plenty of it was quite good – the escalating crackdown by the security forces, Katniss’ confused feelings towards Gale and her sense of responsibility for the violence, anything with Haymitch in it –but it just went on and on.
Thankfully the second act is a bit more interesting, in both a plot and a visual sense. Yes, it takes its cues wholesale from the same section of The Hunger Games, but at least manages to make some inversions to keep things fresh. The sense of déjà vu will never quite leave you, as you see the parade, the fancy house, the training, the assessments, the interviews, the fake love story being elaborated upon, the fancy dress and the final ascent into the Games themselves, all with much of the same pace, beats and process as The Hunger Games.
But Francis Lawrence isn’t content, thankfully, to just rest on the work of previous director Gary Ross and manages to infuse these moments – and the entire second act – with its own feel. The Hunger Games saw Katniss and Peeta alone among a pack of wolves, now they’re actively looking for allies. The Hunger Games saw them play the game to an extent, now they’re aloof and attempt to more aggressively intimidate their would-be assassins. The general air of revolution and societal collapse allows the entertaining chat-show style interviews to have an added degree of menace and desperation.
This is all summed up in the final part of this section, as Katniss takes her place in the arena. The costume designer Cinna is there, once again, to pin the brooch and see her off, before Catching Fire shows its teeth and has him brutally beaten, apparently to death. The gloves are off in this instalment.
The section within the actual games manages to tread a similar line, of similarity to The Hunger Games with its wooded location, water based fight scenes and non-human difficulties with an added emphasis on teamwork and group survival. Instead of fighting fellow tributes, Katniss and her group spend most of their time fighting vicious baboons, poisonous fog or just trailing through the jungle trying to avoid people. I think I mentioned in my review of The Hunger Games that I was surprised by the actual lack of violence given the premise, and Catching Fire continues this, maybe to an even higher degree, but it is more acceptable in this tale, where Katniss, whether she knows it or not, is actively participating in a figurative middle finger to the Capitol government from the very start. Similarly, I thought it was strange, or maybe a bit of a cop-out in The Hunger Games that Katniss was never put in a position where she killed someone in cold-blood, and that is the same in Catching Fire, but at least it makes more since here.
The pacing issues that plagued the first hour and change of Catching Fire are no longer an issue here, as we move from threat to threat inside the arena. The variety of those threats – boils, baboons, blood and psychological torture – make for an entertaining experience.
Francis Lawrence goes with that structure, one of very slow, methodical build-up leading to a final stretch more filled with action, and I suppose that is just fine, it could just have used with some tightening up. Plenty of scenes in the opening act could have been edited down to make the running time – over two hours in this final version– a bit more accessible.
But he also does other, new, things with the plot structure of Catching Fire over The Hunger Games that should be applauded. The malevolent President Snow is a much more important character here and is treated as such. No longer just a rather distinguished looking face looking somewhat bored like he was in The Hunger Games, now he is an active participant, with his own scenes and personal interactions with other characters to mark him out, the non-Katniss stuff that was extremely rare in The Hunger Games. While it is not an honour extended to most of the cast, it is a least a pleasant change from the way that the, nominally, primary antagonist was treated in the last instalment. It also created an avenue through which the Plutarch character could grow and evolve in our eyes, from insidious gamemaster to secret revolutionary.
Catching Fire is a movie where the stakes change for Katniss, but also don’t. In the first film, she was obsessed only with defending her sisters life, and then with trying to find a way to survive, eventually going down that path with Peeta, all very personal goals. In Catching Fire, the very future of Panem and the districts seems like it is at stake, with Katniss being able to manipulate things by her own actions. She does so, but it is important to remember that her primary motivations are still well-grounded: she wants to protect her family from government oppression, and protect Gale due to her secret attraction to him. Through the course of Catching Fire, just like she did in The Hunger Games, she comes to place Peeta more firmly in this circle as well. Catching Fire is a movie where the goalposts have changed, and yet not, managing to place Katniss at the centre of a more epic quest while also leaving her with very direct, believable and relatable goals for the audience to relate to. I’m never going to lead a revolution – well, I would assume – but I have people I would be willing to risk my life to protect if they were faced with life threatening danger. Catching Fire manages to craft a tale where the main character has to change the world, but never really looks beyond what is truly important.
And what a character Katniss Everdeen is. A strong, capable women, more than ready to defend herself or her loved ones with force, but still vulnerable, still conflicted, still human, doing it all without showing her breasts prominently or being dominated by the men around her. She is a great female icon, one to be placed far above the witless Bella Swans or stereotyped Hermione Grangers of the fictional worlds we dive into it. If not for the greatness that Katniss brings, this would probably be a tawdry forgettable story, but with this main character, who dominates proceedings and never gives us any indication as to why it should not be so, The Hunger Games franchise reaches a new height.
It’s Katniss who is the driving force of the plot. She’s the “Mockingjay”, the once and future Queen. She’s the one protecting her family, she’s the one who tries to get Gale to run away with her, she’s the one who tries to make sure that Peeta doesn’t die in the Arena. She is the all important player, and she does it by utilising her intelligence and her innate skill with a bow rather than with her looks or with any generic feminine wiles, the kind of thing that Katniss is achingly poor at, and all the more relatable for it. It’s terrible that such things should be noted, but in this day and age Katniss Everdeen remains one of the best, most well-rounded female characters that are currently being put in movies.
How do the male roles line up next to that? If this had been made a few decades ago, Peeta and Gale would probably be the heroes, the Edward and Jacob to Bella. Here, they revolve around rather than prod and direct her, but do so in the fashion that is neither condescending nor full of “mansplaining” sentiment. Katniss is, perhaps, better defined as a female role model because she is surrounded by men who look to her and try and follow her lead, be they mentors, fake lovers or doomed romances. One of the things that I noticed, very approvingly in this film, is that no male characters, the allies anyway, denigrate Katniss’ position in the story, yet remain vibrant, three dimensional characters themselves. No one is trying to stifle her involvement by being overly-protective, none of them take the lead or steal the spotlight. It’s like there is a sense, as Joss Whedon once said, “that recognising somebody else’s power does not diminish your own”. And that’s a good thing, and it makes Catching Fire a better movie than it might possibly be otherwise.
But it would be remiss of me not to mention the more generic aspects of this. Catching Fire still has a love triangle plotline that appears straight from the screenwriters guide to predictable romance, but manages to do good things with it. There are no showy, overly-emotional displays of affection, no Romeo and Juliet soliloquy’s and perfect moments of eyes meeting. Katniss has an attraction to Gale, a constant in her life who seems safe, more in line with her lifestyle and offers an escape from the craziness that her life has become. Peeta offers a phony relationship and a life in front of cameras, but is still a good man, someone willing to throw himself under a bus for Katniss if it comes right down to it, even if she, initially, doesn’t share the same feelings. Catching Fire is a story about those relationships changing under immense strain, and how Katniss comes to appreciate Peeta more and his presence in her life. I liked the way that this was presented, a gradual change in her outlook due to events and the enforced absence from Gale, culminating in the duo’s first real romantic moment during the Games. They left that sub-plot in a good place, and it remains something that can be elaborated on effectively as we move forward to Mockingjay.
Catching Fire plays some tricks when it comes to one of its central theses: knowing who the real enemy is. The unquestionable bad guy is President Snow, whose dirty dealings mirror real-life dictators and “rule through fear” types. Lesser characters, like Commander Thread, follow this line as well. It’s in the other bad guys that Catching Fire tries to be a bit cleverer, most notably Plutarch. I wouldn’t say that the “twist” of his real allegiance was particularly shocking, but at least Francis Lawrence took the time to build-up to that moment, utilising his gamemaster character far better than Wes Bentley’s Seneca was used in The Hunger Games. Catching Fire manages to craft a story of questionable allegiance in the actual Games as well, leading to the reveal of a larger conspiracy at the conclusion, which was just about the best part of that sequence.
That conspiracy is slow-boil, but parts of it are more obvious than others. Plutarch’s motivations are lampshaded early as his initial plans to discredit Katniss go predictably awry, while Katniss’ group in the arena are constantly dropping hints that they know more than Katniss when it comes to their objectives. I wouldn’t say I was too thrilled with most of it, and maybe a little bit more restraint would have created a larger sense of shock at the ending. Seeing Plutarch, Finnick, Beetee and Haymitch in cahoots wasn’t that big a deal to me, since the story had been obviously heading in that direction for than a half hour.
The ending is where Catching Fire falls down decisively, and it’s a real shame. When I walked out of Star Trek Into Darkness, I felt incredibly disappointed by the movie despite its generally decency because of its weak conclusion, and my very initial thoughts of Catching Fire were coloured the same way. Having plodded through so much of its running time with dragged out and sequences and edit-worthy material, Catching Fire just comes to an end in a very sudden and unsatisfying manner. While trying to sort out the “Careers”, Katniss stumbles upon a hidden plot to break out of the dome, she’s taken away, “shocking” reveal, credits.
Catching Fire has no real climax, no cathartic final confrontation. The Hunger Games had the last combat with Cato and the “Mutts” but Catching Fire has no equivalent. It’s flat and unimaginative. I’m informed this is true to the book, but that just means that this is a failure of adaptation. They could have had more of a combat with the Careers, Katniss fighting a losing battle to save Peeta against the Capitol, something. Instead there is a half-seen ambush by the Careers, some lightning and then nothing at all. The absence of this means that the feeling of dissatisfaction once the credit rolls is unavoidable. There’s no pay-off, just mentions of Peeta being captured off-screen and vague inferring of a larger revolution about to start. It is Catching Fire’s one truly big negative, which drags it down from being one of the best movies of the year to being more of a second tier choice.
Part of that is also the “reveals” in the final moments. I’ve mentioned the disappointment I had with the stuff about Plutarch and Haymitch’s conspiracy, but there is also the “firebombing” of District 12, an event meant to shock and disgust us I suppose. But the only named characters from District 12, Katniss’s family and Gale, got out just fine. They’re the only ones I cared about. The rest, in a place that seemed more like a miserable shanty town than anywhere worthy of mourning in the event of its destruction, meant very little to me. I’m sure it meant something to the characters, but not enough was done to endear District 12 to me, the viewer, enough that I really care unduly if the decrepit, wasting town and its browbeaten inhabitants are removed from the picture.
There is also the “reveal” that the mysterious District 13 is also still around and operating, but this fell flat for me to. At no point is it rightly explained what District 13 is or was, and it is only mentioned off-hand by Snow in a scene early on in Catching Fire, certainly not enough to set it up as a place of refuge or revolution. Yet, going there is supposed to be yet another plot twist worthy of our attention . It isn’t. I’m given to understand that greater fleshing out of District 13 in the source material didn’t make it onto the screen, which is a shame.
Of course, there is a lot that Catching Fire isn’t telling us about the universe that it takes place in. One of my big problems with The Hunger Games was the scarcity of information on how Panem and the Hunger Games came to be, this bizarre ritual coinciding with an equally bizarre dichotomy between the Capitol and the Districts. Why is the capital filled with people in such garish outfits and costuming? Why do some people, the important ones like Snow for example, not wear such obscenities? I know these are unimportant questions, but the costuming and make-up stuff is such a visual distraction that I can’t help but ask. Similarly, another lousy job is done at explaining just why the “Careers” are so antagonistic and murder-crazy. What’s a “Victors Village”? Does every District have one? Why do they have to get trains everywhere when there are planes after all?
And most jarringly of all, what the hell is a “Mockingjay”? They never once explain what that bird is in these movies, though they have no compunction of saying the word over and over again. And it’s actually important, one of the key metaphors of the entire series from what I have read.
As with The Hunger Games, Catching Fire strikes me as a movie where large parts of it are being made exclusively from people who have already read the books, and the rest of us can just look puzzled in parts. I suppose they want us to go out and actual read the books, but that isn’t something I feel inclined to do. If the answer to any question like the ones that I have posed above is “Well, as they explain in the books…” the movie has failed at a key part in adaptation.
While those are negatives, Catching Fire is partially redeemed by its very last shot. I mentioned at the top that I felt Catching Fire was framing itself very deliberately with its choice of opening, showing a tense, taut Karniss Everdeen hiding from the role that she has to play. The ending, after being informed of the downfall of her home District, shows anger, disgust and then a resolute determination going across her face, a quiet fury building up. The damage has been papered over. The fear is gone. The resistance to the role she is being asked to play is gone. President Snow asked her near the beginning, warningly, if she wanted to “be in a real war?” The Katniss of that opening shot declined and sought a way out. If the Katniss of the final shot, having gone through more traumas and come through it with a kind of rebirth, was asked the same question, she would probably say that she already is. She’s caught fire, as the final image of the movie attests.
Catching Fire is a great movie for character evolution, as outlined for Katniss above, but also for many others. Peeta ended The Hunger Games as a lovestruck young man in line for a disappointment – here he manages to actual gain that affection from Katniss, to an extent, and has become a more confident individual. Haymitch started out in The Hunger Games as a drunk waster. By the end of Catching Fire he’s complicit in a secret revolution. Finnick starts off as a Justin Bieber clone, Johanna is an angry, uncaring individual. By the end, they’re soldier in a larger war. Catching Fire is a good movie at presenting those changes on a gradual level.
Before I move on, it is probably apropos of me to mention the movies – and the source materials – genre. The term “Young Adult” is often used. I dislike that term. These are not movies for Young Adults, a term with seems to indicate they are not mature or accessible enough for most movie audiences, that they are for teenagers. It’s nonsense. Catching Fire is as mature a film as I have seen this year, with a depth and intricacy that movies with higher age ratings frequently lack. Describing it as Young Adult is something that I view as an insult. This plot and this story, is too good, and presented too well, to be tarred with such a brush.
Jennifer Lawrence gives an outstanding performance as Katniss Everdeen, a part, to be cliché, that she’s born to play. I’ve talked at length about how good a character Katniss is, but all of that characterisation would be meaningless if it didn’t have a good performance behind. Lawrence’s provides that performances, with emoting and delivery that is of the near-highest quality.
It’s more than just the anger at her situation, the grim resolve in the Games, the complicated relationships with Gale and Peeta. I’ve seen few actors who can nail the outward signs of PTSD as well as Lawrence does, the unease, the suffering, the uncontrollable outbursts and panic attacks. If Katniss is seen as a sympathetic character, it is largely down to the fact that Lawrence has made her so, a girl on the edge of mental stability, but who manages to come through it with resolve and purpose.
Whether she is faking a love between Katniss and Peeta or going through the awkward stages of attraction with Gale, Lawrence is able to create a character who is inexperienced in romance and appears it, lost in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions and just trying to make sure that she can keep everyone alive. Her Katniss does not want to be the symbol of revolution, does not want to be the one that everybody looks to, but by the conclusion seems to have embraced that role, with a wordless transformation in the final shot, as effectively acted and gotten across as any other moment in the production. Lawrence is a true wonder as Katniss, perfectly cast as a character that her own real life interactions with media would seem to indicate she is imminently suitable for. Of course, I don’t need to go on too much, the Academy has already recognised Lawrence’s talent (for a movie I actually disliked, ironically). I think she’s only gotten better, and with a long career ahead of her, might be capable of even more as this series continues.
Josh Hutcherson is Peeta. Like in The Hunger Games, he gets to emote in ways that Katniss doesn’t, and is the kind of character who wears his heart on his sleeve. Hutcherson’s gives us a young man pained by rejection, but trying just to get on with things, seeking a friendship with Katniss if he can’t have it all. He seems more stoic and aloof about his past experience than her, but the walls do break down occasionally. In trying to create a love interest that is both relatable and sympathetic for the audience, Hutcherson succeeds, though I suppose he could have been given just a bit more to do. I think he probably had a much bigger role to play in The Hunger Games, where he had less people, or rather less well fleshed out characters, to share time with. In The Hunger Games he was one of only two other tributes with any kind of character full stop, which is not the same here, not to mention the expanded roles for Gale, Haymitch, Effie and Snow. While Hutcherson is not only fine as Peeta, but compelling, it can’t go unnoticed that the prominence of the character is affecting his impact. But I still enjoyed his performance, and his back and forth with Lawrence, which evoked shades of Alan Tudyk with Gina Torres in Firefly/Serenity.
It goes the same for Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, a great character, played by a great actor, the kind of guy who can realistically switch from morose to full of levity at the drop of a hat. Haymitch, the battle-scarred “survivor” – not victor – of a previous Hunger Games, with a drinking problem matched by a cantankerous attitude, is a Hawkeye for the modern era. Harrelson revels in this part and what it allows him to do, the twin peaks of humour and seriousness, of drama and the required moments of lighter material. His back and forth with the nominal leads remains as good as it was in The Hunger Games, and his interactions with Effie have only gotten better. While he, like Peeta, has to take more of a back seat by necessity of the expanded main cast, he still makes a very clear impact.
Donald Sutherland is playing a character I and friends sarcastically dubbed “President Santa Claus” after seeing The Hunger Games, not just because of the general resemblance, but also because he wasn’t an important enough character to take seriously. That changes in Catching Fire. Sutherland is positively let loose in Catching Fire, with more screentime, a higher sense of menace and a greater opportunity to be an actual villain, the preening, micromanaging autocrat who detests what Katniss symbolises. He plots, he hatches diabolical schemes, he looks on from his ivory tower. But it is more than that. He has a granddaughter that he looks to for input, he espouses a philosophy about a greater good, he looks on, entranced, as Katniss comes close to sticking an arrow in Finnick. In effect, he has become a fleshed out character more than just the stock bad guy he was in The Hunger Games, and that’s a good thing, since Sutherland is too good an actor to waste.
Liam Hemsworth is probably the only real weak-link in the cast, since the role of Gale does not really require him to do all that much, other than look dashing and take a beating. He basically vanishes from the story after Act One anyway, so Thor’s less illustrious brother will be left until Mockingjay to actually make a more substantial impact. His romance with Katniss is an emotional sub-plot carried by Lawrence and her screentime, so Hemsworth is simply left with nothing to offer on the same level.
Elizabeth Banks returns as the colourful and increasingly make-uped Effie. I was so-so about her performance in The Hunger Games, but it has improved immeasurably with the material she is given here. Her Effie is a woman who serves as a microchasm of the Capitol in general, who is just starting to see the innate immorality of her surroundings, and is in a state trying to figure out how to handle it. She keeps the mask on, barely throughout most of the show, but it slips dramatically in her final scene, in a moving moment as she despairs for “her victors” fates in this new Games. Banks doesn’t get many roles like this, and she excels in Catching Fire.
Lenny Kravitz also returns as the stylist Cinna, and just as in The Hunger Games, he is excellent in this one, doing the best possible work in the few minutes that he actual has onscreen. So effective has been his performance in these two movies that his apparent death was a hammer blow for me, the perfect way to lead into the Games themselves, a testament to the work that had been done so far by him. A shame that he will not be present in the remaining films, but that kind of emotional pay-off was worth it.
Philip Seymour Hoffman adds his considerable acting experience and talent to the cast as Plutarch, and I appreciated the performance that he offered, understated and low-key, but filled with hints of something deeper, something to be easily confused as threat or menace but actually something far more devious than that. While Hoffman doesn’t add much to the overall experience, he has several great scenes, with both Katniss at the party and with Snow as the Games commence, and I look forward to seeing him a bit more in the next instalments.
Sam Clafin was quite interesting and entertaining as Finnick Odair, a man who, on the face of it, is as vapid and washed up an example of what the Capital can do to people, but who actually has a hidden depth to his character that comes out through his participation in the games. He had many great lines and archived a level of three dimensions to the character by the time the credits rolled, even if he was probably the most guilty at having to spill several not so secret hints that something bigger was going on with the games.
The rest of the cast is more one note. Jeffrey Wright is a technologically savvy Tribute whose knowledge of forcefields becomes the main crux of the later plot. Stanley Tucci returns as the Capitol’s entertainment maestro, now struggling to keep a lid on the growing unrest. Jena Malone does well as the fiery Johanna who has nothing left to lose, allowing her to be a bit more open in her hatred for the regime. Willow Shields has one brief, but very important, scene as Katniss’s sister Prim, and I would imagine she will have a deeper role to play as we continue.
Overall, Catching Fire, just as The Hunger Games was, is well cast and well acted, a major positive that helps to offset some of the negatives I mentioned earlier.
Visually, Catching Fire is a step up from The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games wasn’t terrible mind, but there were plenty of moments during it when the camerawork seemed sort amateurish, basic, too quick to resort back that terrible enemy of humanity in the shakycam. There are still a few instances of that horrific technique, but this time its use is measured in seconds as opposed to scenes.
And the rest is fine. Not too complicated, mostly two close/one wide set-ups, but that’s just what is required. When it’s personal, like when Peeta and Katniss are faking being newly engaged, we go very close up and personal, when they turn to address the propaganda camera we go far back to take in some of the scenery.
And that scenery is wonderfully adept at fitting the story, with the cold bleakness of District 12 in its dirty white ground, ramshackle housing and dirt strewn inhabitants, or in the magnificent facade of the Capitol with its stone, technology and eccentrically attired denizens. The increase in budget that Catching Fire enjoyed has allowed for a greater amount of complicated set-building, something that is crucial to the establishment of a living, breathing fictional universe.
That increase in funding is given a clever nod in the movie itself, as Effie discusses how the Capitol has “spared no expense” in its new Tribute training facilities or the Arena itself, both of which benefit from a renewed focus on CGI. The Hunger Games kept it real and physical for all but its closing sequences and a few once-off moments (like the fiery clothing or the “tracker jackers”), and there was nothing wrong with that. But there is equally nothing wrong with letting computer imagery shape the story if the financing is there to do it.
And it is, and it does. I wouldn’t say there is any poor CGI in Catching Fire, from the threatening looking aircraft to the poisonous fog to the block-assembled training holograms to the angry horde of baboons that proved such a terrifying living foe in the actual Games. Francis Lawrence has been able to seamlessly integrate this new technological edge to accentuate Catching Fire into a better visual treat, when it could have easily ruined it if the implementation had been rushed or forced.
The very core of the universe is about combat, but Catching Fire has actually rowed back on the combat for this outing. The aforementioned baboon fight is just about the most overtly obvious action sequences, and while entertaining, smacks of just creating an enemy that it would be OK for the “good guys” to actually fight and kill instead of other tributes. There is a small bit of that, but the “Careers” of Catching Fire are even less well developed than the ones in The Hunger Games, little more than cardboard cut-outs for Finnick to throw his trident into.
For a book that, I have it on good authority, is supposed to be bloodier than The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is surprisingly red-lite. The 12A rating it received here, all in an effort to pack the punters in I would assume, means that any sort of combat is usually of the tame variety, and an apparently horrific sequence in the book featuring a rain of blood is cut down greatly in this filmed version to little more than a description of something that happened off-camera. Still, what few actions scenes that there exist in Catching Fire are choreographed well, with different characters marked by different weapons, and most getting the chance to show off some fighting skill.
Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn are in to write the script for Catching Fire. I thought that The Hunger Games’ wordplay was oft-understated, fitting a movie where the main character spent a lot of time onscreen alone, but that isn’t the same here. It’s a good script, intelligent yet accessible, moving things along and providing some depth and the chance to emote without ever really breaking out into truly stellar territory. For characters like Haymitch and Snow, the elders who are trying to control or advise the younger crowd, the best lines are reserved, whether it is Snow’s cold (ha) “Would you like to be in a real war?” to the woman he perpetually but memorably describes as “Miss Everdeen” or Haymitch’s sad declaration to the same character that there is no “getting off this train” when it comes to the Capitol’s propaganda.
Peeta and Katniss share some wonderful moments as they grow closer, beginning an opening up with each other over their favourite colours, leading up to more heartfelt stuff during the actual games. Plutarch and Snow have some deliciously evil moments as they plot the downfall of Katniss, with a healthy helping of “floggings…executions…fear”. Effie cries after spending most of the film admonishing “her victors” for their lack of propaganda glee, telling them they “deserved so much better.” Haymitch introduces some levity right when its most needed near the end, and revealing the conspiracy in the same moment: “So it’s you and a syringe against the Capitol? See, this is why no one lets you make the plans.”
I wouldn’t say that Catching Fire’s script contained anything that will really stick in the mind too long, but it avoided cliché and served to evolve and characterise the players involved to the right extent. Some of the most powerful moments in Catching Fire are without words, not least the opening and the closing, but there is emotion and depth is other parts too.
Catching Fire’s score is much the same as it was in The Hunger Games. A slightly buffed up version of the wonderful Panem anthem “Horn of Plenty” makes an appearance, but other than that James Newton Howard has fallen back on much the same chords and swells, mostly of the quiet and frequently, barely noticeable kind. So much of Catching Fire, like The Hunger Games, is supposed to emphasise isolation ,loneliness and fear, and the choice has been taken to remove music from the equation in order to emphasise that in large parts of the running time. The result is a score that is, perhaps, not as memorable as it perhaps could have been, but one that remains effective, emotive and evocative when it has to be.
Catching Fire is certainly one of the deeper and more thought provoking movies that I have seen of late, and contains numerous themes that are worth discussing. The first, and most obvious, is one of revolution. I suppose Mockingjay will be about the revolution more directly, but Catching Fire has revolution at its core, the rising tide of dissatisfaction, sedition and that unkillable seed of rebellion. Katniss and Peeta’s action in The Hunger Games have changed the balance of public perception when it comes to both the Capitol and the self-worth of the Districts. Now people fight back. The secret salutes are made, the whistles chanted. “The odds are never in our favour” is graffitied across a wall, rather memorably. The Peacekeepers get out the lashes, the batons and even the guns. The tide is not stopped. Everywhere, people are starting to fight back, whether they are the peolple who would inevitably have done so anyway, like Gale, or the people would otherwise have died under the boot of oppression, like Haymitch.
Snow is right, early on, when he outlines his fears that the “system”, this perfect order he has strived to create, can be brought down with remarkable ease once the process starts, but he is as guilty of fanning the flames as Katniss. In attempting to use her and Peeta as a propaganda device, all he does is inflame the revolutionary spirit further. When he tries to off her through a new Hunger Games, the Capitol starts to turn too.
Revolution in Catching Fire is portrayed as undoubtedly a good thing, as an inevitable thing. We’ve seen two movies of the reprehensible political structure that is Panem, one that styles itself with the words “order”, “law” and a sentiment of “greater good” straight out of the Nazi playbook, parallels that are as obvious as they are intentional. That order cannot last. All it took was a commitment from two young people to kill themselves – to refuse to play the game as the authorities wanted them to – for that first crack in the ice to appear, and those fault lines cannot be repaired. The revolution in Catching Fire is on, and it is a revolution that will, undoubtedly in my mind, lead to the destruction of President Snow’s order. Whether what replaces it will be any better is another question entirely.
A connected theme to that of revolution is disintegration. If the Districts are rebelling and aspiring to freedom, the Capitol is a place that is deteriorating, in both facade and spirit. It is not an overly-obvious thing, but the signs are there, like a decadent Roman Empire before the barbarians come calling. The Capital is a society out of control, living it up, inducing vomiting so it can keep eating even while people starve in outlying areas, as clear a link to the fops of the French Revolution as you can get. But for all of that excess, you get the unmistakable feeling of it being one last wild party, as if the people of the Capitol have a subconscious realisation that the good times are going to be over very soon: just as Katniss and Peeta have woken up the Districts to their plight in a more obvious way, so they have opened the eyes of the Capitol.
And they don’t like what they see. Effie is the most obvious sign of it, her gradual breakdown as she realises the horrific way that Katniss and Peeta are being treated, by a system that she previously embraced. Cinna’s been rejecting Capitol society for a while, and finally goes a step too far. Meanwhile, even the usually gung-ho audience of Caesar’s interview show is turning on Snow and his catalogue of violence. As Jeffrey Wright’s character declares, simply and memorably, that the Hunger Games are not some event installed by divine right, as Johanna flies off the handle and openly curses Snow, as Peeta tells his last desperate lie about “the baby”, it is clear that the disintegration in Capital society is clear and irreversible. The crowd’s murmurs for change, for a halt in the bloodshed, while Caeser, temporarily lost for words, can only glare at the camera and wait for the lights to go off. But these people are not a bird that will go quiet when the cloth is put over the cage, not anymore.
And it’s all because of Katniss, and to a lesser extent, Peeta. They’ve played their own game, and continue to do so. In a world where the young are supposed to slaughter each other, they’ve found a way out, become individuals in a system designed to make them dead martyrs without the slightest shred of anything non-conformist. But that comes with its own difficulties, leading to another key theme: trust. Katniss and Peeta rely on each other, but they can’t win the Games alone, and Haymitch and his fellow conspirators know that they can’t get her and Peeta out alone.
So, a secret coalition is formed, based along a gold bracelet and the key words: “Remember who the real enemy is.” The real enemy is, of course, Snow and Panem, and the entire point of the later stages of Catching Fire seems to be about Katniss coming to realise this, that her fellow Tributes cannot be considered the bad guys anymore. She has to place trust in the right people, be they romantic partners like Peeta, fighters like Finnick and Johanna, or the unlikely, like the elderly Mags or slightly crazy Wires. They are the outcasts, the peasants sent to fight for the amusement of the powerful. They have to find in each other a bond, or else the whole plan might actually come undone. When Katniss puts her bow down late on, having come perilously close to killing Finnick, she accepts the message that Haymitch and others were trying to drill into her: Remember who the real enemy is. Don’t play the game they want you to play. Trust others. Catch fire. Be the Mockingjay.
Perhaps, in the end, the person that Katniss really needs to trust the most is herself. She begins Catching Fire broken, desperate, fearful, submissive. Through her own self-realisation and the help of others, she becomes stronger. She is manipulated, by both sides, but with the final shot of the movie we are left in no doubt as to whether Katniss trusts herself anymore. The doubt is gone.
Love, and the power of love, are also key themes in Catching Fire. Katniss is caught between two attractions throughout the course of the movie. There is a traditional, adolescent one for Gale, one probably based more on physical attraction than anything. And there is a different sort of one for Peeta, one that has its roots in pity, then friendship, then extreme circumstances, but by the end of Catching Fire, we are sure that there is something real there, unlike The Hunger Games.
“Love is weird” proclaims Johanna during the Games, upon site of Finnick pining for an unseen partner. She’s right. Catching Fire makes clear that it is an unpredictable, strange force, that affects us at the most random times and makes us do the most unlikely things. Katniss has to come to a decision about who she loves and what she wants, and while she hasn’t really made that decision by the end of Catching Fire, it seems clear that she has come to have a deeper appreciation for Peeta, the boy that Haymitch recommends by telling her she could find no one better for her if she searched for a hundred lifetimes. Gale might just be unlucky, but he always seemed to me to be a more idealistic, dream-like aspiration for Katniss, one based on a life she used to have before the events of The Hunger Games, a chance at a life that is long since past.
With love, come secrets, another key theme. Katniss is kept in the dark about the wider conspiracy that she is at the centre of, and the revelation of that secret sends her into a rage. Finnick keeps and deals in secrets, and thus it is no surprise to see him right in the centre of the plot to get Katniss out of the Games. Plutarch, Haymitch, Peeta, they all keep something hidden from Katniss, out of a desire to protect her, and maybe win her over at a different time. Katniss of course, keeps her own deceits, her hidden feelings for Peeta, her initial acceptance of the Snow line when it comes to her victory tour, her indications to Peeta that she will be ready to turn on her allies if the opportunity comes during the Games. In adventures to come, one might wonder if this secrecy might come back to bite some characters in the ass.
Lastly, I’d like to spend a moment talking about reality. This universe is one obsessed with commenting on the perception of reality. The Capitol is a place full of indoctrinated people, who happily cheer on a festival of mass murder like its a good thing, oblivious to the evident evil because they have been brainwashed by a system that wants to make the Games the highest form of entertainment, make it the reality, even if nearly every part of their presentation, other than the death of course, is fabricated to some extent.
There are obvious parallels with modern day society to draw, where the reality TV genre has become as manipulated and showbiz as any other, to the extent that we can be confident that something like Keeping up with the Kardashians is as scripted and directed as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Hunger Games is a fairly transparent commentary on this, on our society and how so many of us seem ready to buy into this fantasy despite how obviously fake or potentially immoral it all is. In my review of The Hunger Games, a friend pointed out that so much news media surrounding the movie ignored the messages it was trying to make wholesale, to focus on the casts appearance and whether any of them were romantically involved with others. His point was in answer to my complaint that I felt the Games and their place in society were unrealistic due to the deficiencies in exposition. I still think that, but even I cannot fail to notice the obvious compare and contrast going on in Catching Fire with our real-world media and news, where truth is what certain people make it, and perception has become far more important than honesty.
Conclusion time. Catching Fire is a bit of an odd one to rate. So many of its individual components are just great. The general story is entertaining, the acting performances are nearly all good, the script is fine, the music is decent, the visuals are great, the film has depth and was engaging. But the sum of its parts does not automatically equal success for this film.
The structure and pacing of the movie are so frequently off as to be beyond ignoring. Too much of it is a replication of the first movie in the franchise, and the ending is drab and unsatisfying, not because it lacked some sort of generic action hero climax, but because it lacked any kind of climax at all. Despite all of the positives, Catching Fire still has these negatives, which colour so much of the otherwise positive opinion.
Catching Fire is still a very decent movie, one that I was entertained and engaged by. I’ll certainly be there when Mockingjay, Part One hits screens. And while I have no problem recommending Catching Fire to people, I cannot help but be disappointed greatly by its flaws, that drag down what could have been something approaching a masterpiece.
But they will be less problematic for others I am sure. If there is one single thing to focus on in Catching Fire it is the wonder, the cinematic inspiration and role model that is Jennifer Lawrence and Katniss Everdeen, a female protagonist for a more enlightened age of film-making and the perfect actress to play her. If for no other reason (and there are other reasons), people should see The Hunger Games franchise, and this latest instalment, so that the odds, so often in the favour of the traditional male-dominated archetype for creations of this nature, might just change for good.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate.)