Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) – Review

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is entertaining, but feels incomplete. The film picks up where its predecessor The Hunger Games left off: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark won the 74th Hunger Games, which has incited a swelling of rebellion in the twelve districts – especially those in constant strife. Katniss is now under pressure by the President to act her part and not encourage further revolution. But the president soon realizes that she is far too dangerous to live, as are the other former champions. Thus, for the 75th Hunger Games, he decides that the tributes from each district will be made up of former winners, as a means to eliminate their threat to his power.

While I liked The Hunger Games overall, much of my problem with the film came from Katniss never really being faced with a truly difficult choice. Narratively and dramatically speaking, everything was just too easy for her (and on her). And more or less the same is true in Catching Fire. Katniss is still the main character, but much of the more interesting narrative elements seem to be taking place behind the scenes without her involvement or knowledge, which leaves the film feeling like just a basic remake of the first film (only, supposedly with higher stakes because this time all the tributes are trained killers).

Overall, Catching Fire does have more dramatically poignant moments, however. This is true particularly of Katniss’s visit to District 11 to pay tribute to Thresh and Rue. The relationships between characters feel more organic and steeped in reality than just emotionally dramatic for the sake of appealing to their targeted audience of youth adults (which has certainly grown substantially to include mostly all filmgoers). This is something that works well for the film. The audience actually cares about these characters this time around, which only heightens the tension throughout (though, the writers still clearly do not really know what to do with Gale and his relationship with Katniss – the audience sees them kiss and so on but really there is nothing of substance for them to care about in the actual narrative, while Katniss’s relationship with Peeta is much more developed and believable). In the first film, all the other tributes were also basically throwaway characters, with only Rue meaning anything – and that is solely due to Katniss caring about her. This time around, a number of the other tributes are actually given their own dramatic character moments that the audience can latch onto, take stock in, and relate to. Again, what works much better in this film is that outside of Katniss the audience is actually invested in other characters this time.

And yet Catching Fire cannot overcome its big story flaws to be something great. It is a good, entertaining adventure/action drama with a social message (which can be somewhat extrapolated in comparison to the world’s own current wealth distribution inequality). Katniss is a very likable character, even if she is basically left out of the primary narrative of the film. And that is the problem. Because Katniss is left out, so is the audience. Director Francis Lawrence does this because he wants the big reveal (that is not really that big a surprise for anyone actually paying attention) for Katniss to also play for the audience. Thus, the audience is saddled with pretty much the same film again: Katniss is a heartbroken tribute. She goes to the capital, where she is paraded around, trains, makes allies/enemies, all before being dropped into the arena to fight to the death. Lawrence does give the audience better and more exciting action this time (as he clearly also has a bigger budget and skill for the genre), but still the audience has already seen all this before in the last film.

Worst of all, just when the narrative starts to get interesting and Katniss is finally let in on the primary plot (which is all behind the scenes in the film, as the audience is fixed to Katniss’s perspective), the film ends. This leaves the film feeling frustratingly incomplete, as effectively Catching Fire is nothing but act one for the bigger narrative that plays out in Mockingjay – a big tease for better things to come. While Catching Fire is better in almost every way in comparison to The Hunger Games, at least that film has a satisfying narrative and character arc.

Narratively, Catching Fire is not a feature film, rather merely part one of a three part story structured similarly to a television miniseries.  It is common in Hollywood for series to be split into multiple films (often one story being split into two or even three films), but so far writers have done a good job structuring the breaks so that each part in a way tells its own story and the character(s) grow, develop, and change from beginning to end, while also having a goal or dramatic journey. Catching Fire seemingly has no real narrative structure – and if it does, it is essentially the same as the first film. The film essentially is about all the chess pieces being organized into their strategic positions in order to strike at their opponent, but then the film ends before they can make their move. And, on top of that, the audience is not even involved in their positioning; rather they sit on the sideline while things happen around them, only clued in once they are on the board (but by then, the film is over). Katniss’s dramatic struggle in the film (trying to survive yet another Hunger Games, while primarily trying to keep Peeta alive) is completely undermined by the reveal at the end, because really her struggle was just a place holder until the real narrative was ready to begin (which we will have to wait a year to see the first half of). This whole film could have easily been condensed into act one of the next film (book) because that is essentially what it is. Therefore, while the action is bigger, the stakes higher (I guess), and so on, the narrative that the audience is a part of is boring (as they have already watched this film last time), plus Katniss does not really have a character arc (because she is essentially sidelined). The viewer is only engaged because of their investment in Katniss and she is in peril, but again from a story perspective this leaves a lot to be desired and is almost wholly unsatisfying (as a standalone film).

Now, in the scheme of the whole series, Catching Fire might end up working quite well as a companion piece to the Mockingjay films, but as a standalone film it just does not have a strong enough narrative to warrant its existence, at least in the framework of a narrative feature film. And yet, it is entertaining and enjoyable for what it is and it does leave the audience ready and excited for what comes next – and therefore one could say it does its job.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: What a difference a director makes. The Hunger Games presents a strong female character in Katniss and a compelling idea of a society that celebrates the spectacle of its youths fighting to the death, but Gary Ross took this material and delivered a rather dull film that is really only good due to its lead actress and the strength of its story and world. Francis Lawrence does a much better job with the look and action. Catching Fire is much more fluid and exciting, if only it had a strong narrative too. Despite its flaws, it very well might be Lawrence’s best film (edging out Constantine and I Am Legend). I do look forward to seeing what he does with the finale two films, which likely will actually feature a full story and a real dramatic arc for Katniss.

Composer James Newton Howard already had a strong foundation with his music for The Hunger Games, thus his work on Catching Fire was more or less already done for him. Some composers take their music to new heights with each sequel (like Hans Zimmer with his phenomenal The Dark Knight Rises score), while others rest on their laurels. Howard’s score for Catching Fire works well with the drama on screen, and thus does what it needs to do, but it does not really bring anything dynamic or new to the film (and yes, Howard did work with Zimmer on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight scores). Meanwhile, the soundtrack inspired by the film is probably better this time around. Production designer Philip Messina again does good work on the film, which takes full advantage of the stark juxtaposition between the poorer districts and the rich Capital. Costume designer Trish Summerville also does standout work. In taking over for Ross, Lawrence brought in cinematographer Jo Willems, who provides a much richer look for the film (accentuating what appear to be greater production values).

Catching Fire also features what feels like a much better, fuller cast this time around, especially in the smaller supporting roles. As far as returning supporting characters, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are again fun in their outlandish roles, but this time they get to play with some emotion as well. Donald Sutherland does a good job playing what is essentially a snarling role as the President. Despite his appearance, he seems menacing. While barely in the film, Willow Shields actually has some strong moments as Katniss’s sister Primrose. Liam Hemsworth has the difficult job of playing a character with no development – Gale – who exists seemingly to be handsome and likable. Woody Harrelson is very good as Haymitch, but as he is primarily involved in the main behind the scenes plot that is kept secret from Katniss (and the audience, though poorly) he has little screen time. There is a lot of good work from the new faces. Patrick St. Esprit is strong as a ruthless soldier (in a very small role). Amanda Plummer plays crazy in an ‘I am actually really smart’ way quite well, while Jeffrey Wright plays smart in a fun annoyed genius sort of way. Jena Malone is fantastic as Johanna Mason, a former champion who feels very put out by having to compete again and is not afraid to vocalize it. She, more so that most of the other former champions (that are not just balls of muscles), actually is able to be very intimidating without seeming physically imposing. Sam Claflin is strong as Finnick, as he is able to play things close to the vest. The audience is not really sure if he is a hero or villain (even at the end, when it seems clear). Much like Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman who just commands the screen is desperately short on screen time, because he is involved in the more interesting narrative that audience is not involved in (but will likely play a bigger role in the upcoming films). Josh Hutcherson is much better this time around. His Peeta seems to have discovered himself and is not afraid to actually try and put himself out there. His acting was timid in the last film, he seems much more confident, allowing himself to actually take on a character this time. Jennifer Lawrence is again the main reason that the film succeeds on any level. She brings so much to Katniss. The audience seems to forget that this is just a film and Katniss is not real. She plays her so naturally that it feels like Katniss is a real girl facing horrors, which pulls the audience in and has them glued to the screen.

Summary & score: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is better in almost every way to its predecessor, but it is also essentially the same film rehashed again with the far more interesting narrative played behind the scenes and left for later films in the series. 7/10

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