Show Business meets the Gladiator games in the dystopian future – is merely a good starting point of a description for Catching Fire. Of course this film isn’t really about show business nor gladiators in the days of ancient Rome. But the connections are inescapable.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second film of the series adapted from the Suzanne Collins YA novels.
With Jennifer Lawrence returning as Katniss Everdeen and a new director, Francis Lawrence, at the helm, I entered the theater eager for this film despite the lingering thought that the whole idea of Panem, and its authoritarian Capitol, along with young people fighting to the death for the amusement of the multitudes, was no longer new to me.
For those of you who haven’t read the books, the first film of the series ended with Katniss and Peeta, rather than one killing the other to emerge victorious and remain alive, decide to commit suicide in a joint pact. That didn’t happen, and they were declared co-winners. Across Panem, and particularly in the poorer Districts, this was considered extremely brave, meritorious, and delighted the rank and file.
But this didn’t go down all that well in the Capitol’s corridors of power. Especially with President Snow who felt that the breaking of the tradition (one victor) was a personal affront to him and the regime. But he could do nothing, as Katniss and Peeta were universally the country’s darlings, except in the minds of the true hardliners.
The thinking was that if these two could defy, then surely more would follow. And if that happened, abject acceptance of Panem’s laws might no longer be as sure of a thing as it had always been. Armed with hope, the populace could become dangerous.
So following the dictum of: Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer, President Snow arranged for Katniss and Peeta to go on tour in advance of the upcoming 75th Hunger Games, which was also a Quarter Quell which utilized every 25th anniversary of the forming of Panem as way of amping up the games, and getting everyone’s attention.
While on tour, Katniss would be away from home, and under the control of one of her handlers. Effie Trinket, a woman who would walk away as winner of any and all worst dressed contests. So the state’s super luxury Presidential train took them from district to district. But after Katniss, wavered from her scripted comments, and flashed the three fingered peace sign, which irked President Snow, she was pulled aside and told to follow the script and the program or else.
So as you can imagine, President Snow wanted to be rid of Katniss and everything she stood for. But he couldn’t just have her thrown into jail, or [gasp] murdered. So the new Hunger Games would be a competition with previous winners representing each district. Katniss as a co-winner from the previous games, and the only female winner from her district ever, was a no-brainer. Haymitch was named as the male representative from the district, but under the rules, he could be replaced by a volunteer. So Peeta steps up and volunteers.
So Katniss and Peeta would be facing the best of the best, who were the smartest, toughest, the most skilled, and above all – were mostly friends. Which definitely placed Katniss and Peeta as the outsiders coming from Panem’s poorest district.
There’s your set up. Katniss once again is in a deadly kill or be killed fight for her life. Surprisingly, despite my misgivings that the film would no longer be new, and the other more serious concern that there are still two more films to come, so Katniss, might be in peril, or even danger – but it was never going to be grave danger. Which would limit the suspense, and dial back the fears for her considerably.
But it all worked rather well. While not close to being perfect or being worthy of a five point zero rating – Catching Fire is surely a blockbuster hit, and easily, it is far superior to the original.
The Major Plusses aka the Pros: Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely riveting as Katniss. You can’t take your eyes off her.
Coincidentally, she is on-screen for about 90% of the film. She’s heroic, brave, unafraid of challenges, and looks smashing in her warrior competition suit. But wait until you see her when she’s dressed for the social occasions. Her outfits, make up and accessories are literally and figuratively on fire symbolically.
Stanley Tucci as the emcee Caesar Flickerman is electric. And those teeth! The Flickerman role called for Tucci to be clearly in the employ of the state – his job was to whip the people watching on tv as well as those in attendance into a frenzy. But he had a fine line to walk. He had to support the combatants yet steer clear of anything political or damaging to the state.
Elizabeth Banks was marvelous as the fluttering den mother – Effie Trinket. Her role was expanded this time out and she made the most of it.
Woody Harrelson as Haymitch. Once again, he will make the highlight reels as Katniss and Peeta’s trainer. He loses some screen time to Effie, but he still knocks it out of the park when he is on-screen.
Donald Sutherland reprises his role as President Snow. If this was the old days, the audience would boo or hiss every time he was on-screen. But he was simply so good as the sinister Snow, that you actually looked forward to seeing him.
I will also give Director Lawrence kudos for actually making a sequel that is superior to the original.
The Minus aka The Cons: I still fail to register anything for Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. He’s rather dull despite his admirable loyalty and bravery. Liam Hemsworth as Gale, fares no better in this film than he did in the original. We see him early and we see him late – but he’s not an impact player.
Sam Claflin had the role of Finnick. He was neat when we first met him. A big strapping lad – a legend in his own mind. But even though he had a positive role in the film, I didn’t think much of him after the opener.
The Neutrals: Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee. This was another key role in the film. But Hoffman played it low-key throughout. He wasn’t bad at all, but he just lacked something. Ditto for Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as two of the combatants who tried to win utilizing brains rather than brawn. Lenny Kravitz (below) is on board as Cinna, who designs Katniss’s gowns. He looks good but his role is quite small.
Early reports show that Hunger Games: Catching Fire is just killing it at the box office. Expectations are for 150 million for the first weekend alone vs an estimated budget of 178 million. But be advised – the film has the 24 (2 from each of the 12 districts) in a kill or be killed survival contest. But the film is surprising blood free. About 3/4 of those that didn’t make it are killed off-screen, and we only get the news.
There’s a poisonous fog, and there’s a band of vicious mandrill monkeys – cousins of the baboons – but both the fog and the ferocious mandrills appear during the darkness. President Snow has his army of storm troopers, but they seem to be carrying (most of the time) only small batons, and while they can and do beat some of the citizenry into submission, they don’t seem even as tough as the soldiers/police we saw in the Matt Damon thriller Elysium this past summer. In fact, the lack of real peril is the one limiting factor of the movie. While there are casualties – we don’t see them fall in action.
But I understand that – to get a PG-13 rating, the killings had to sanitized.
Summary: Definitely a hit, and definitely worth seeing. They’ve managed to overcome the lack of real suspense by throwing more than enough fabulous style at you. J-Law is a delight, and is earning a great amount of love as a screen star as she carries this film. And despite everything, there is a palpable feel to the simmering unrest that we see in the outer districts. In the Capitol, what we see is that life is a party. Clearly the life choices, which are most simple two sides of the haves vs the have not – are going to collide and soon. While you do have a sense of that at all times, you won’t be focusing on that because J-Law’s Katniss is so appealing. While Jennifer Lawrence is head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, there are superb players below her on the cast list.
I’ll rate it at four point two five, call it a must see and heartily recommend it.