Now officially the all-time November opening record holder, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was always a fairly sure thing in terms of box office. But what’s more impressive is the advance word on the film (our own included), and the buzz around it, which has been so positive, with it being touted as the rare sequel that improves on the original, and with many going so far as to compare it to “The Empire Strikes Back.” (Though, to be honest, we think that comparison is more to do with how open-ended it feels, with the good guys separated and some of them still imperiled, at the film’s close.) Some of us might not go quite that far, but certainly director Francis Lawrence has made good on delivering a broader, more nuanced and more layered film than the first, which is fitting considering he was adapting what we’d consider the best of the three books, by quite some distance.
But not everything worked for us, even for those of us who are among the film’s bigger fans. The film is long, it’s quite slow to start with and the aforementioned mid-air ending does mean the pacing issues tell a little as it wears on. However, on the other hand, that slightly strange shape does make it feel a great deal less formulaic than the average YA sequel. So know then, that we’re coming largely from a very positive place as we take a look through some of notable aspects of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” that stuck with us—the good, the bad and the somewhere-in-between. Oh, and obviously this is a post for people who’ve seen the film already, so spoilers ahead.
Jena Malone as Johanna Mason
Jena Malone as returning tribute Johanna Mason is some of the most spot-on casting of the franchise, and she tears into the axe-wielding part with gusto. Malone brings a much needed wild-eyed ferocity to the proceedings, a fine foil to the also badass, but often overly compassionate Katniss. She’s mad as hell about this Quarter Quell and everyone’s going to hear about it too (her brutal honesty is refreshing). Malone walks off with every scene she’s in, starting with the infamous elevator strip down, where she sheds her District 7 tree costume in order to get a rise out of Katniss (she elicits some quality Jennifer Lawrence side eye that is truly a delight to behold). She’s not without nuance though, demonstrating her willingness to protect others at all costs and hinting that her ferocious demeanor comes from a place of real trauma and loss caused by the Games. In fact, Malone’s version of the character comes across as almost a crazy-mirror version of Katniss—she has all the strength of will but none of the love and the edge of jealousy this brings to her dealings with Katniss is deliciously played by Malone. We almost felt like Johanna envies Katniss being the girl who will start the revolution, as it’s a role she herself would have relished, but she simply doesn’t possess the same inspirational quality. Which makes her spiteful and bitter, even while she’s principled and fundamentally decent enough to be doing the right thing. The only complaint might be that there wasn’t enough of her on screen. Prequel material, maybe?
Amped-Up Scope And Scale
In the first film, the arena where the games are held seemed like a magically science fiction-y realm, where it seemed like the godlike architects of the games (alongside the nefarious President Snow) could reconfigure land, sea, and air, almost on a whim. But in execution, it seemed like the woodsy arena was next door to the rundown district where Katniss hailed from; the lack of variety didn’t just seem like a creative deficiency but a budgetary one too. With “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” both the budget and the creative principals’ imaginations seem to have been widened considerably. Not only do we get cool stuff outside of the arena like glittering, futuristic cities and luxury monorails, but the arena seems bigger and more magnificent. The tropical setting was an inspired flourish; it makes it deadlier and differentiates itself completely from the original’s Appalachian backdrop. The games themselves are grander too, with stuff like the sinister wave of toxic fog, a band of carnivorous baboons and the rotating island. In this film, the promise of the games, especially with the expanded “Survivor: All Stars“-like cast of characters, has been fully realized.
Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Begins To Come Into His Own
While, not being thirteen, we don’t want to spend any time rehashing the “OMG Liam Hemsworth‘s Gale is sooo way hotter than Josh Hutcherson‘s Peeta” debate, (especially as The Onion’s terrific review dives deep into that same issue), from a slightly less hormonal standpoint, Hutcherson’s casting as Peeta did begin to make more sense to us during this outing. While it felt a little like a miscalculation in the first film, here Hutcherson’s relative slightness and lack of out-and-out hunkiness seems to be part of the point: the love triangle, for all it feels a little mishandled (see below) is between Katniss and two actual people, not just two guys who are desperately in love with her but otherwise differ only in the type of “studly” they embody. In fact Peeta, who is still something of a liability during the actual games (he does temporarily die, after all), thanks to some sensitive writing, gets to deliver some decent dialogue that suggests his independent thought processes, and makes it clear that Katniss, to her credit and that of the film, has a choice to make not between Hottie 1 and Hottie 2, but between two different young men who are defined by different things in the wider world, and not just their relationship to her.
It Looks Good (No Shaky Cam!)
Considering how quickly “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was put together, it’s sort of amazing that the production team had any time to design (or redesign) aspects of this particular, bloodthirsty futureworld; the fact that these designs are so striking is even more impressive. But director Francis Lawrence, taking over from Gary Ross, has designed and implemented a fully realized world, whether the proto-Stalinist architecture of some of the outer districts or the zooming monorails and grand balls of the Capitol, not to mention a version of the Hunger Games in which the lightning trees, whirling typhoons, and clouds of toxic gas are really given memorable, malevolent design. Gone is the first movie’s over-reliance on frantic shaky cam cinematography, which added a level of frenetic electricity but often at the cost of things like spatial geography or character placement. Lawrence instead chooses to shoot in long, fluid takes that root you firmly in the action, cleanly establishing the geography of each scene without having to overtly explain it. The best of these sequences is Katniss’ introduction to the new arena, mere moments after watching one of her mentors get brutally beaten: initially we’re as disoriented as she is, before in just a few strokes, the layout is established and the action breathlessly kicks off. Lawrence is an underappreciated stylist who makes exciting genre movies where very little actually happens (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend“); here he steps up his game by making what is arguably the best movie of his career. It’s full of action and suspense and, much to our shock and delight, you can actually understand what’s going on. Most of the time, anyway.
Jeffrey Wright as Beetee and Amanda Plummer as Wiress
Along with Lynn Collins’ Mags, fan favorites Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) add a different layer of humanity to the games that audiences hadn’t seen before. While the first film’s plot just allowed children and teens in the arena, bringing in seasoned veterans gives a new element, and of course this gives the filmmakers the chance to stack the cast more experienced actors. So while Lawrence was by far the most gifted among the tributes’ actors in the first film, seeing her interact with big-league talent here is invigorating. With their quirky intelligence and strategy, Wiress and Beetee stand out among the alumni tributes. From the first moment we glimpse them as they prep basic survival skills for the upcoming games, they are differentiated among the flashing teeth and brawny muscles of the career tributes. Plummer’s Wiress in particular still seems to always carry the weight of what she did, making it clear that though they aren’t as eager for violence, they still have a deadly past that neither can escape. Both Wiress and Beetee could have simply been twitchy, nerdy caricatures, but casting Wright (who seems to be everywhere) and Plummer (who we always want to see more of) gives them depth and brings additional emotional weight to the arena’s proceedings, to the cast of other tributes (which needs all the rounding out it can get) and to the film as a whole.
Make Up and Costume
The makeup and costuming are of course showy elements that were fully embraced in the first film too, especially as regards Effie and the Capitol crowd. But this time there seems to be something a little subtler and more subversive at work. Part of the the first film’s arc was a kind of makeover transformation of Katniss the dowdy District 12 girl into the Girl On Fire (as daft as those costumes were), and while the Capitol fashions were unbelievably over the top, there was a certain glamor to the flash and dazzle. This time out, however, care is taken to show the cracks in the makeup, the artificiality of the tanning, the absolute horror of of that stupid wedding dress before it reveals the simpler, and much more beautiful gown underneath (though we still have our reservations about the twirling and the fire). And Jennifer Lawrence is styled throughout to look much, much lovelier in her body suit with her hair in a braid running through the forest, than in whatever false-eyelash-and-too-much-bronzer get up she wears to whichever party. The styling cleverly walks this line to show the inherent ugliness of the Capitol’s lavish decadence. And at the other end of the make up spectrum, perhaps the most impressively grim part of a film that also features some fairly graphic whip wounds, a gunshot execution and death by fanged baboon, are the big, blistering pustules that break out over the faces and hands of our heroes when they come into contact with the poison fog. Yes, we know they then wash off leaving no trace, but while they’re there they are so totally gross and disfiguring that we actually had a hard time watching–perhaps due to some previously unidentified deep-seated fear. So we were simultaneously impressed by the makeup’s disgustingness and totally repulsed by the makeup’s disgustingness—no mean feat.
Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket
Speaking of makeup… We already know how fantastic Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are as Caesar Flickerman, talk show host, and Effie Trinket, ditzy publicist/babysitter from the first ‘Hunger Games,’ but they are doing career-best work here, dialing their flamboyant and over-the-top characters way, way up without losing the utmost control. Tucci’s teeth alone are bewitchingly white, and every sigh and gesture he makes captures the blissful artifice and ignorance of the Capitol. Banks, on the other hand, lands perfectly intoned and placed asides with aplomb, and even manages to imbue her materialistic character with some heart and soul. They’re an integral part of creating this world, and do much of the heavy lifting for it. In fact, Effie’s dawning conscience and the sudden glimpses we get of her sincere grief and sense of injustice, roiling beneath the ludicrous artifice of her exterior, are among the most affecting parts of the film.
It kind of feels like we don’t even have to mention this, but Jennifer Lawrence‘s performance, while it’s nothing less than we now expect from the actress, does deserve its own props. It’s difficult to imagine another actress really delivering as much as we get from Lawrence in this role—and director Francis Lawrence, for all he’s mostly a genre/visual stylist, knows how to exploit his star’s fundamental watchability, and gets more than a few bravura close ups and character moments from her. It’s also unusual that it’s not her prettiness that is ever emphasized, instead it’s that wonderful watchful and intelligent quality that Lawrence gives Katniss that makes her so compelling: there is always something more going in her eyes. We particularly loved the moment when Katniss hears her sister’s voice calling to her and pure protective instinct takes over, trumping her rationality, as she goes racing off in search of her. It’s a scene that, in showing how the source of Katniss’ strength and goodness is also her Achilles heel, tells us almost everything we need to know about her.
The One-Note Villain
Subtlety has never been a “Hunger Games” specialty, but Donald Sutherland’s sneering President Snow is glowering menace to the point that he might as well be twirling the ends of his beard. It’s not so much the acting itself, it’s just that Snow isn’t given much to do other than threaten, menace and glare at Katniss every chance he gets, but it’s so one-note and repetitive, it becomes a little annoying.
The First Act: “Show, Don’t Tell” Issues & The Missed Opportunity Of Exploiting Theme
Put aside for one moment that we’re supposed to believe that one girl victor has given an entire country a sense of renewed hope to the point that it might topple a totalitarian dictatorship (neatly summed up by Katniss herself who remarks on the fragility of a system that could be brought down by a few berries). Now it’s nice that Plutarch convinces the President to let her get killed in the arena and all, but every self-respecting dictator from Stalin on down would have snuffed her out the second he scented a whiff of dissent. And so as if to compensate for the creative license taken here with credibility, all of Snow’s dialogue is painfully expository: she’s a threat, she can damage our world, she needs to be stopped, etc. None of the themes of rebellion, blooming hope and “catching fire” ever really have a chance to fully be realized because Snow and others are essentially spelling them out in conversation with each other in every scene. Of course this runs counter to the 101 rule of filmmaking: show, don’t tell.
And sure we see some graffiti and seditious scrawls on walls here and there, but generally we’re told that Panem is discovering hope rather than actively being shown it and thus we barely ever feel it. This is arguably the problem with the entire first act (and beyond, see “watching world” point below): every important detail is told and not shown. Plutarch replacing Seneca Crane as head games master? Yeah, this is dispensed with through dialogue in a quick aside. The districts rioting? Joanna Mason mentions it in passing. Even the capture of Joanna and Peeta, and the destruction of District 12 is something we hear about, rather than see, and therefore any groundswell moment of change is something we never feel and this is perhaps the film’s biggest missed opportunity. The taste and smell of change could be in the air during the movie and this rising civil disobedience could be something, rousing, moving, heart-swelling, something the audience could actively cheer for (see any Obama-like commercial from his first election campaign where there was electricity in the air). This would have elevated ‘Catching Fire’ beyond simple entertainment and connected it to the consciousness on a much more powerful level. Alas, ‘Catching Fire’ isn’t really interested in really exploring this avenue of thematic texture. And while some of the “show, don’t tell” decisions are to do with making sure the audience has a similar level of knowledge to Katniss herself, the cumulative effect if to make the world of the film feel smaller, and more airless.
During The Games, No Sense Of The Watching World
An offshoot of our main “show, don’t tell” gripe, the second half also suffers from us not being shown the impact of Katniss’s actions on the wider world. While Katniss and the other tributes battle the environment and each other in the dome, and we occasionally cut to Plutarch and the drones in the control room, and even once to Snow, we never get a sense of how the people of the Capitol and beyond are responding to the Quarter Quell Games. In the first film, we recall, the position of the cameras and the sense of a world watching that needed to be played to or manipulated into sending in help or whatever, was ever-present. This time there’s no sense that they are all involved in, essentially, a very bloodthirsty TV show. And since we know the meta-narrative of this film is Katniss’s growing fame outside the arena, as a symbol of resistance and potential revolution among the people, it feels like a sore absence that we don’t see how the people are reacting to her various perils.
Still Hampered By Its PG-13 Rating
When the first film was released, it drew comparisons to the Japanese masterpiece “Battle Royale,” in which children outfitted with explosive collars are forced to kill each other in increasingly creative and ghoulish ways. Still, the films differed in a clear area: the violence in the Japanese film was explicit and punchy, while “The Hunger Games” had violence that was obscured and blurry. It was less impactful, but it meant that the book’s young adult demographic could actually, you know, watch the movie. While “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” has a plotline that is less controversial (since adults and even elderly people are entered into the arena), it still feels hampered by its ratings board restrictions. The deaths are similarly quick and hard to register, even though the movie takes on a gloomier, doomier tone. The PG-13 rating is probably also what means we’re denied a sequence that is described instead and seems really cool: a blood rain that chokes the combatants to death. Now that we would have loved to have seen. That all said, however, the focus of the story this time out is in general shifting away from what happens during the Games, so while the certificate is a factor, it doesn’t seem to impact on the finished film quite as much as it did the first time out.
Missed Opportunities To Develop The Love Triangle More Coherently
We’re hesitant to come down too hard on the love triangle as it is much less simplistically drawn than that of nearest equivalent phenomenon, “Twilight,” and as such is a relief, but it does still feel like we’re missing a few of the intermediate steps between Katniss behaving coolly toward Peeta and asking Gale to run away with her, and her warming to Peeta personally even as she passionately, belligerently forces Haymitch and the others to promise to save him at her own expense. As much as Peeta has started to develop into a more interesting character, still Katniss seems to run pretty hot and cold on him, and not necessarily for any discernible reason. As such, we were hoping that the scene in which Peeta comes to sit with the recuperating Gale would give us some insight into how the two relate to each other, but instead we follow Katniss out into the snow. Again it seems that we are really mostly meant to be experiencing only those things that Katniss herself experiences, which is fine except that allying us so closely with her subjectivity should mean we understand what makes her tick, and when it comes to her interactions with Peeta, we just don’t, really.
Occasional Loss of Clarity
In general, the action scenes in ‘Catching Fire’ are well staged and the intelligent script usually provides us with enough information that we understand who or what is at stake in each scene. However sometimes the film loses its normally sure-footed balance, especially during the climactic scene around the lightning tree. Having read the books, we’re aware of who’s on which side and hazily remember how it all went down, but the film feels fractured there and anyone coming in cold (there must be one or two people in the universe who haven’t read the books, after all) will likely spend the last few scenes of the film distracted as they try to piece together what exactly happened to Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and why is Finnick there and was Peeta in on the plan or not etc, etc. Which means the full import of Gale’s revelation that District 12 has been obliterated loses some of its power, purely because there’s still some lingering confusion over what’s just happened, which in turn makes the necessarily mid-air ending (it’s roughly the same endpoint as the book, if we recall correctly) even more unsatisfying. A second, lesser example is when Katniss goes in after Peeta to present her “special skill” and there’s a painting of Rue on the ground. Again, in the book, it’s Peeta who has drawn Rue (using the same artistic skill that had him so amusingly camouflage himself in the first film), which affects the judges deeply so they mark him high, but none of this is alluded to in the film and so it’s really not clear how or why the Rue painting is there and why it’s significant. The film obviously wants to ally us very closely with Katniss, so for the most part we don’t know a huge amount more than she does, but in these two instances anyway, we kind of don’t even know as much as she does, and it makes her decisions, and the motivations for her actions (shooting the electrified arrow into the dome; creating the Seneca Crane dummy) a little unclear.
Poorly Developed Adversary Tributes
The film is long enough as it is, and certainly the cast is already populous, but the cursory speed with which the “bad” tributes are glancingly introduced and then dispatched is a bit of a shame. We understand that we need to spend more time with Joanna, Beetee, Wiress and Finnick, but reducing their human opponents to “the brother and sister team” and “the one with the sharpened teeth” among a cavalcade of undifferentiated others feels like a trick missed. And so when those endless faces flash up on the sky each evening, in most cases it feels like it’s the first time we’ve seen them.
Philip Seymour Hoffman Phoning It In
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s casting as Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (he replaces Wes Bentley’s creatively bearded Seneca Crane, who we are to assume met a not-so-happy ending after the whole poison berries/double winner fiasco) was much reported throughout the blogosphere. That an actor of his taste and stature was stooping to a blockbuster YA adaptation reeked of paycheck motivation, but this series has always attracted top-tier talent. However, from the first glimpse of PSH in ‘Catching Fire’ it’s clear that dude is just trying to make a quick buck by phoning it in, hard. He didn’t even have the decency to sport a Capitol-style goofy haircut or colorful thingamabob! Not even a swish of eyeliner. Nope, he’s literally just swanning about in some weird waistcoat as himself, chatting with Donald Sutherland, who seems positively lively by comparison, and tossing absurd statements at his white-suited team of gamers. Even though Hoffman is always eminently watchable and a forceful presence, he puts no effort into this part, and it shows, since everyone else on screen is on their A-game.
Mags’ Stunt Double
For a film that looks like all of its budget was left on the screen, there were just a few “huh?” moments that managed to slip through, one of them being the incredibly obvious stunt double sitting in for elderly Mags in the piggyback jungle scenes with Finnick. Of course, you can only do what you can with what you’ve got, and if Suzanne Collins says Finnick flings an old woman on his back to run through the jungle, that’s what you’ve got to do. But it was so obviously a petite stuntwoman in a granny wig keeping her head down the entire time. We know you have to do it, but is there anyway to make it not so obvious?
One of the more pointless alterations from the way things appear in the books was to introduce President Snow’s bright-eyed, Katniss-idolizing moppet granddaughter (who is not really mentioned by Suzanne Collins until “Mockingjay“). We know she serves a certain purpose in helping Snow better judge Katniss’ worrisome growing popularity, but as mentioned above, we kind of wish that function was fulfilled by some more time spent out in the wider world. As it is, it seems she’s been added into the mix to also humanize Snow somewhat, and perhaps is a small attempt to address the dimensionality issues that we mention above with regards to this character. But we don’t really think this cosmetic change works to elevate him out of being the kind of pantomime baddie he has been till now, and so it feels underdeveloped at best and at worst, unnecessary.
So if, as the numbers suggest is likely, you saw ‘Catching Fire’ over the weekend, what did you think? Agree or disagree with our points? Sound off below.
–Jessica Kiang, Katie Walsh, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez & Kimber Myers