Review: THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

The steady-handed follow-up to 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES is not only better than the first film — it’s better than the book.

Katniss…remember who the real enemy is.

–Haymitch

Suzanne Collins’s series of young adult novels was quickly heralded upon their arrival as “The next Twilight,” and while that doesn’t sound like a compliment at all with regards to quality, The Hunger Games series has achieved a similar level of cultural domination. (This film, in fact, just achieved the fourth-largest opening in history, with no 3-D and — most shocking of all — a female protagonist.) To compare the two franchises is a belabored exercise for more quick-witted minds than mine, but rather than simply saying that everything about Twilight is awful and leaving it at that, let’s take just a moment to consider their artistic intentions.

Stephen King, of all people, had this to say in comparing the soporific vampires to that other, even more famous, all-time benchmark for “kid lit,” Harry Potter:

Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

Why does Hunger Games, better than Twilight in every conceivable category, have its time wasted in this way by the comparison, despite possessing those same qualities and ideals that King admires? Quite simply, because the main character is a girl and she at some point has to choose between two boys. Never mind that Collins is writing about much broader themes, including but not limited to power, sacrifice, and the media, and that the only one less interested in the love triangle than her male readers is Katniss herself. By reducing the series to simply “Who will she choose,” we can put it in a predetermined box, and not have to wrestle with the difficult questions and horrifying scenarios on the page or on the screen.

Because it’s true, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, now with an Oscar on her mantle but continuing to show she deserved it) has a lot on her mind. While she and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) managed to survive the 74th Hunger Games together, and are now showered with riches, living in mansions (alongside Haymitch, who Woody Harrelson continues to play with sharpness desperately masking decency), District 12 is as poor as ever, and elsewhere around the country tensions are beginning to boil over.

Sent on a “Victory Tour,” Katniss has been charged by the terrifying President Snow to curb the impending rebellion or else — primarily by continuing the masquerade of being in love with Peeta, and keeping the focus on their “showmance” and not their defiance in the Games. Shoved in front of cameras and crowds day after day, she must parrot the party line, praise the Capitol, and under no circumstances let on that she is anything but happy…and tamed. This, obviously, is an impossible challenge, and when a man in District 11 (the home of Katniss’s young ally in the Games, Rue) is shot for raising his hand in that three-fingered gesture of support, she quickly realizes that this isn’t just a two-week tour — it’s the rest of her life.

This time, it’s she who tells would-be boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who fortunately has more to do this time around) that they should just run away, rather than her be forced into a sham marriage while her friends continue to starve, but before they get the chance, Snow — who knows that the only way to nip a revolution in the bud is to take away all hope — drops the bombshell: for the 75th Games, all of the tributes will come from the existing pool of winners. Katniss is going back, and Snow and the new Gamemaster Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, pitch-perfect in a pivotal role) want to make sure she doesn’t make it out this time.

When I first read the novel, having had this “big twist” — which occurs halfway through the book and an hour into the film — spoiled by the dust jacket, I was impatient throughout all the “Victory Tour” and Peeta-Gale nonsense because I misunderstood just what kind of a story this was. The Games are not the point this time around. In fact, the Games — while sporting great sequences and an extremely clever conceit — are almost an afterthought. This is simply, like many dark middle chapters before it (drawing not-entirely-unwarranted comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back in some circles), about getting Katniss to the place where she chooses to be a part of the broader story.

The film has much better pacing than the book did in this respect, and Lawrence’s performance is so good that we’re let inside Katniss’s head without the aid of a first-person narrator. Her revulsion at the Capitol and its oblivious citizens (save her determined stylist, Cinna), her impatience for the propaganda she’s forced to be a part of, and her terror at having to return to the arena — it’s all there on her face, and director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) makes her face the focal point of every scene. One thing that the director Lawrence does extremely well here (other than keep the camera more steady) is find that emotional center, and keep us always grounded even as the setting changes from District 12, to the hideously affluent Capitol, and into the Games.

What Gary Ross did do with the first film was cast it impeccably, and that continues here, with the principal players (including Elizabeth Banks and the delightfully insane Stanley Tucci, who are given some new colors to play with…not just literally) growing deeper and deeper into their roles, and some sensational new additions in the other returning tributes: Sam Claflin as the hunky, trident-wielding Finnick; Jena Malone as the lethal, royally pissed-off Johanna; and Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Lynn Cohen lending even more wattage as older (and underrated) champions who just want to survive. Not a single action is unimportant, not a moment is wasted, and utilizing these new adult characters gives the film a gravity it hasn’t had before.

Furthermore, the world just feels bigger. Seeing more corners of Pan-em, with more expansive sets and improved special effects, gives Catching Fire the epic feeling it deserves, and every facet of the production — from the cinematography to James Newton Howard’s propulsive and idiosyncratic score — has raised its game. Key additions (and subtractions) in the journey from page to screen allow the film to fully stand on its own as a technically impressive and narratively compelling film, regardless of what genre it’s in. The material is challenging, uncomfortable, and resistant to the kind of over-simplification suffered by lesser series trying to ride its coattails. In fact, as Subway and other corporations have shown, it’s easy to miss its point entirely, even fly in the face of what it’s saying about our shallow, media-driven, economically disparate culture.

But if the Lawrences (Francis and Jennifer) can walk that high-wire all the way to the end, the series will finally be recognized for what it is: a resounding — and brave — cinematic achievement, deeper and darker more soul-stirring than any other hashtag-generating, tween-agitating film series of the 21st century. Comparing it to Twilight only does it a grave injustice. Time to let it sit at the adults’ table.

Grade: A-

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