Review by Kenneth Kimbrough
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt, and Suzanne Collins
Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography by Jo Willems
Film Editing by Alan Edward Bell
Note: I have not read any of Suzanne Collins’s books. This review pertains to the film and to the film alone.
At first, it was difficult to swallow the idea of a second Hunger Games film, even though I knew it was based on a series of books from author Suzanne Collins. After watching various trailers, all I could imagine was a formulaic sequel—“Hunger Games 2: Hunger Harder”—a recipe including another tribute selection, another return to the capitol, another sizing up of the competition, another bid for sponsorship, and another last ditch effort to bend the rules just enough to survive. To be fair, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (directed by Francis Lawrence, who previously helmed I Am Legend) does hit many of those same beats, but all of them are wrapped within a larger, more complex narrative that deals with the first film’s repercussions and moves the story forward in a logical and enthralling manner. It’s the same formula, but it’s executed in a way that builds upon the foundation of the previous entry.
The film picks up roughly where its predecessor left off. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), having survived the previous games by winning over the crowd’s sympathy, are being paraded around on a victory tour in much the same way that a tabloid would give a follow-up to a reality series like The Bachelor. However, this attempt to sell the fiction to the oppressed spectators backfires when the districts begin to rebel in increasingly violent protests. Regularly witnessing this unrest, the totalitarian government’s autocratic ruler, President Snow (here portrayed by veteran actor Donald Sutherland), begins to grow fearful of the hope that Katniss and Peeta inspire among the poverty-stricken districts. Seeing their victory as an act of defiance, he begins to concoct a scheme to destroy the victors in an attempt to quell any further acts of rebellion among his subjects. His solution is something of a celebrity Hunger Games, with only previous victors as contestants. Something should be said here for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Plutarch Heavensbee, the new game master and chief strategist to President Snow. Hoffman gives a compellingly ambiguous performance, and I spent most of the film genuinely in the dark about his motives. He gives Snow the idea for the new Hunger Games, but it’s unclear just what Plutarch has to gain from his actions.
Another advantage of the film’s conceit has is to provide a more seasoned cast of actors than the first film. Among the previous victors are two techies, Beetee and Wiress—played by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer respectively—a handsome fan favorite, Finnick (Sam Claflin), and a perpetually pissed-off axe wielding Jena Malone as Johanna. Together, these actors provide for a much more believable band of contestants, each knowledgeable of their roles in the game and how to navigate their way to survival.
As for the technical aspects of the film, anyone expecting an action film may be a little disappointed. The film is surprisingly bleak and often contemplative. It clocks in at roughly two-and-a-half hours, and the titular games don’t even occur until the third act. For those who took issue with the first film’s fights, the action is still somewhat obfuscated by jerky camera movement, but I’ll defend it in the context of this story. The criticisms of the so-called “shaky cam” are that action and character are difficult to determine, but in this film, we’re dealing with characters who are all suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress. They’re all unsure who they can trust, and the camera movements present an uncertainty that helps to build tension. In the framework of the film, it makes sense. However, some of the night scenes did appear to be underlit.
Another aspect of the film that I enjoyed was the cinematography. Most of the lighting is natural lighting, and there’s a distinct visual difference between the impoverished districts and the ostentatious capitol. The districts have a dirty, lived-in look, where even the ubiquitous storm troopers have scuffed white uniforms, while the capital is clean and futuristic, almost Disney in its appearance. There’s a schism between the two worlds that tells all we need to know visually about the conflict.
One of the more surprising aspects of this film is just how many high concepts the writers managed to fit into what’s ostensibly a teen blockbuster. Unsurprisingly, the film has many layers of games played on different fronts among different players—often with stakes of life and death. There’s the game Katniss and Peeta play, trying to convince the public that they’re in love—at the same time, acting as pawns in Snow’s own larger game for absolute control of the districts. Even a comic relief character like Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is stuck in her own game, where she fits into the wealthy upper class, forced to keep a smile even though she recognizes that the children she selects for tribute will likely be slaughtered.
All in all, I’d say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is definitely worth your time. My only complaint is that the film ends somewhat abruptly. But I suppose that’s only to ensure that the audience is left wanting more. Two more films are planned, splitting the final book into two parts, but if they’re anything like this film—consider my tickets already bought.
Follow Kenneth Kimbrough on Twitter: @KMoneyForever