Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Sci–Fi/ Thriller
It has been almost a year since Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) won the 74th Annual Hunger Games and the two now live a life of luxury and as reluctant celebrities, while Peeta struggles to keep up their ‘relationship’ for the cameras. The two of them are also forced to do a ‘Victory Tour’ of the districts and though it was never intended, Katniss gives the poverty stricken oppressed citizens of the districts a sense of hope. This is noticed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and so to eradicate the citizen’s hope and any potential rebellion he along with the new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) introduces a special rule for the upcoming 75th (or Quarter Quell) Games: This time the Games will consist of two previous winners from each District in a fight to the death. This time Katniss and Peeta are truly out of the depth as they face experienced killers in this new round of Games that could potentially change not only both their lives, but also the future of Panem and the districts forever.
I have to say from the off that I never understood the hype and consistently huge praise that The Hunger Games received. I thought it was a perfectly solid and enjoyable blockbuster, but also flawed, clichéd and very forgettable. I am afraid to say that in my view Catching Fire has exactly the same qualities and faults, apart from being moodier and a little bit longer. Naturally being the middle part of a trilogy (though now four films – money grabbing sods!), Catching Fire was doomed to have perhaps a little bit of a frustrating ending and dedicate a vast majority of the narrative to setting up the overall story. That is fine and perfectly forgivable, but for a film that is 146 minutes I found that you simply do not get quite as much out of this film as what you put in.
I have not read the book, so am in the ideal position to (as I should) base my review solely on the film, and though contained within this story are some powerful and very universal themes and ideas such as the unfairness of the oppression of the many by the wealthy few, the power of having or not having hope and an ordinary citizen being forced into the position of reluctant hero to name a few. However, I found there was a consistent feeling of more hinting at these than going to any real detail which left an extremely uneven and at times frustrating tone.
I cannot remember how long exactly, but it must be a good 90 minutes before the new Games begin and this consists of a slightly boring mix of the politics that will set up part 3 (and 4 now) and ‘previously in part 1’, which quite frankly we do not need quite such a detailed reminder off. There is also a slight feeling of déjà vu as there is the inevitable build up to these new Games, which though are of course different are presented in a way as clichéd, clunky and predictable as the first film.
Thankfully these new Games introduce some genuinely interesting characters, which is a welcome relief after the caricature contestants in the first film’s Games which seemed to have been written to make us hate them so we simply had to root for Katniss. Here we have adults that are past winners, and thankfully a few are not just cardboard cut out caricatures (even though it has to be questioned if they could have ever won a past Games never mind their age). Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin and Jena Malone are all tributes that are given more depth in a few minutes than Hemsworth’s and Hutcherson’s smitten lovesick boys combined in two films. Of course the two boys that love Katniss still have time to develop as great characters, but they both just feel like convenient narrative tools for Katniss’ story and they have a terrible habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for narrative’s sake.
These cheap and lazy uses of narrative are once again more proof in my view of to just how clunky and at times alienating the whole story has been so far; too many coincidences and conveniences (as well characters taking a huge gamble that other characters will do certain things – cannot say anymore on that one, and oh I wish I could!). For me there are too many of these moments that are used to solely drive the plot forward and they do not do the film any favours. I of course appreciate that in fiction there has to be an element of this and it is of course escapism, but for a film that takes itself so extremely seriously I feel it just goes too far. There were several times when I wanted to shout at the screen in annoyed exasperation: “Really?!?”
In terms of our heroine, there is no doubting that Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific screen presence and superb as Katniss, giving her the required emotional depth needed for a protagonist of such a story. Woody Harrelson is just Woody Harrelson in a wig, but does it so well and has a tendency to dominate every scene he is in. Bringing the seriously needed quality though is newbie to the franchise Philip Seymour Hoffman. Any actor would be an improvement on Wes Bentley, but as the new gamemaker, Hoffman brings some much needed class to proceedings in a role that he could do in his sleep.
Ok, so it may seem like I have only said bad things about Catching Fire, but despite all the flaws and being at times an effort to watch, there is enough intrigue and a good overall story to keep things interesting. Once we (finally) get to the Games things do genuinely pick up as through raining blood, poisonous fog and extremely angry apes we have authentic tension and terror. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation I believe) creates a genuine sense of constant danger, which along with the conflicts and choices that arrive for certain characters creates the most involving and intriguing part of the film. Despite the terror being occasionally broken up by Peeta moping about or doing something silly (and the aforementioned characters relying on other characters to do other things) it is a final third that it is genuinely tense and atmospheric with developments that set up Mockingjay very nicely.
Flawed, slow and severely testing both the patience and tolerance of its audience at times, but despite that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has enough of a good overall story and a genuinely gripping final third to suggest what will happen in Mockingjay will be worth your (tested) patience.