Film: ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ is bigger and better than the first

By Will Ashton || @thewillofash
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
| Directed by Francis Lawrence | Rated PG-13
RATING: 3.5/5

thehungergams-catchingfire-ukposterThese days, YA adaptations come and go like the seasons.

Just this year alone, there was The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Ender’s Game and now The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Of these, Hunger Games is the only one that has been successful, both critically and financially, and, this time, it’s for good reason.

Catching Fire continues the story set from before by following Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the unorthodox winners of the 74th Hunger Games seen in the last film. These days, Peeta and Katniss are living comfortably, but Katniss, at least, is not enjoying her newfound fame. At least, she is not enjoying what she had to do to earn it, having gained PTSD from the traumatic events that have taken place.

In addition to this, she is continuing to fall victim to her feelings towards Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a boy she has feelings for in her District 12, and Peeta, the boy she has to pretend to love in order to win the last game. In order to keep order among the media and to inspire hope, Peeta and Katniss continue to fuel their fake, or “fake,” relationship that they established in the last film. But President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has been keeping track of their lies, and wants to eliminate them by any means possible. He may have found his opportunity through the counsel of Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the head leader of the Games.

The reason many of these YA adaptations have failed in the past is because they would get an audience. With Hunger Games, however, they earn their followers’ love.  In addition to its strong characters and its interesting social commentary, both films have been able to provide a tense, intimate look at their post-apocalyptic worlds. They certainly aren’t the first movies to do what they have done—as the Battle Royale fans will be quick to note—but the point remains that they do what they do well.

With that, Catching Fire is one of the rare sequels that not only builds on what has happened on the first film, but it improves on them as well. Under the guise of a new director, Francis Lawrence (not relation to the lead actress—I believe) and new screenwriters, Academy Award-winners Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, now calling himself Michael deBruyn, the sequel is able to give weight and gravitas to what is happening on-screen. The direction is now far more assured and bigger in scope, and the script is able to provide a greater sense of detail in what is happening inside this world and inside these characters’ minds.

While I appreciated previous helmer’s Gary Ross’ shaky cam—if at least in the rural opening moments of the film—more than most, Francis Lawrence’s dictated, firm camera direction helps to provide focus and perspective. Not only does he drive this in from what is happening with the characters, but he also does it from the story’s universe.

Like any sequel, Catching Fire has a bigger, broader focus in its storytelling, but Francis Lawrence is able to provide a stronger sense of world-building and social commentary with his direction. Lawrence, along with Beaufoy and deBruyn, now elaborate on the stakes of what is happening in this universe, as well as give a greater sense of weight into not just what these games mean for this society, but also what these games mean for the main characters.

I think what separates series like Harry Potter and Hunger Games from various other generic YA adaptations and the Twilight series is their dedication to examining the nature of their universe and using them to build on their characters. With Harry Potter, this was accomplished more in the later films but, their ability to examine the tension of the situation from a more psychological point-of-view helped to add depth to not just the characters, but the characters’ world. This is also accomplished in Hunger Games, particularly in its first half.

While most action-thriller series would be more focused on establishing what is to come in the next couple hours, Catching Fire’s decision to look at how the events from the last film haunt our main characters makes them more realistic and honest, and therefore more compelling. Among the film’s best moments are those that set aside time to show Katniss as a person, not just a beacon of hope for the society in the film or as a action protagonist for us audience members.

Additionally, through an increased budget, the film is thankfully able to make the special effects in this movie much better than they were before. The fire clothes still don’t quite look right yet, but they do look better than they did before. The biggest improvement of this installment in the series, however, is found from its action scenes. Not only are the set pieces more impressive, but Lawrence’s action-directing expertise make these scenes much better than they were in the previous film. Ross’ close-up, shaky cam still was easily at its worse when these action scenes took place. Here, everything is much cleaner and far easier to follow. As a result, the action is much more intense and the scenes are more rewarding to watch.

Unfortunately, however, Catching Fire still falls victim to one problem that plagued the first movie, and it is probably the biggest problem of them all—the relationships Katniss holds with Peeta and Gale. In the first movie, partially from Hutcherson’s weak performance and the lack of romantic chemistry he shared with Lawrence, the film was unable to establish their relationship as appearing genuine.

Now, book fans have been quick to note that this relationship is meant to feel hollow, in the book/film’s ongoing commentary on the nature of celebrity status and how the media plays on celebrity couples. But, if it is not properly addressed, then viewers who did not read the book will not be able to fully grasp this concept. Like many YA adaptations, even Harry Potter, the film will sometimes take for granted that the audience will know what is happening because they read the books. Hunger Games isn’t the biggest offender of this—not by a long shot—but it is rather notable in these sequences.

While this film is better at examining the hollow reality of their relationship in the first half, whenever the film decides to drive home the point that they may have feelings for each other, the film begins to falter. While Hutchinson does give a pretty good performance this time around—even if he is still the weakest link (it’s hard to stand up against Academy Award-winners like Lawrence and Hoffman)—the lack of chemistry these two leads have together still continues to creep in.

Whenever Peeta gets hurt and Katniss is upset by it, I can believe that, primarily because of Lawrence’s performance, who does a great job here. But whenever the film wants me to believe that these two may be in love, it never feels genuine, and the film’s reliance on James Newton Howard’s score to try to push this down our throats often feels uncomfortably forced.

Additionally, Gale’s storyline here feels less vital than it even did in the first film, and, often, the film seems to forget that he is even there. I know that fans of the books would cry outrage if they cut Gale from the story, but I feel like the films would maybe be better if they focused more attention on Peeta and Katniss’ relationship. Maybe not, I’m not really sure; perhaps it flows better in the book.

Perhaps these relationships are going to lead up to a satisfying conclusion in the end. The film is quick to end on a cliffhanger, leaving audiences in anticipation for when the new film comes out next year—even if they already know what is going to happen because of the book.  Although the series is not without its faults, I can confidently say that I’m looking forward to the next installment in this series. Thanks to the increased quality of this film, my anticipation for it is even more so than it was before.


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