THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Review: Reheated Leftovers
If a film is based on a book, I never read the book before I see the film because to me, the work needs to be a film first. If a film is great but doesn’t “stay true” to the source material, I don’t care because the film is great. If a film satisfies the fans of the source material for its faithfulness, but leaves me cold as a viewer, I’m just as disappointed as I would be if the screenplay were original (and I won’t seek out the book to try to compensate for the bad film experience, either). While I respect those that look for and/or need a correlation between the two works, I don’t need it to get the full moviegoing experience out of it.
Sadly, though, not knowing the source material means that I cannot properly offer praise to the original author when a work is done well. Conversely, and sadder still, I cannot properly assign blame to the original author – in this case Suzanne Collins‘ – when the film struggles … as I would like to do here.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy (both literary and cinematic, although the third book, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, will be made into two films, the first slated for release in 2014 and the second in 2015). If you don’t know the story by now, in the first installment, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a dystopian future where the rich and mighty oppress the poor and feeble, and once a year those poor and feeble must fight to the death in an annual contest called “The Hunger Games,” and do so for the entertainment of the rich and mighty. Not everyone fights, of course. Only two people – two children, actually – are chosen to represent each of the 12 Districts (like states, basically). Katniss not only wins the games, she outsmarts President Snow (Donald Sutherland), which keeps her District 12 mate – and possible love interest? – Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive and co-champion.
In this second installment, Katniss is now an inspiration to a beleaguered nation – a symbol of hope. As she and Peeta – whose romance is trumped up for TV, much to the concern of Katniss’ actual man, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – embark on their Victor’s Tour, President Snow has growing concerns that the people might actually rebel against the government. Taking the advice of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), President Snow announces that the 75th Hunger Games will be contested by past winners from all 12 Districts – an all-star edition, if you will. This puts Katniss and Peeta (who were to be married to keep the people happy), back on the field of battle. They are assisted by those who helped them in the first go-round – former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), District Escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and Stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
If I knew nothing about this franchise and had been shown the first film (without its title revealed to me) and then shown this film (again without its title revealed to me), I would be convinced that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is nothing more than a glossier remake of The Hunger Games, but with the same cast. There are so many similarities between the two that they become a distraction, which does a disservice to the greater theme of the film. That’s a shame, because there was real potential here.
Both films run more like two-act plays than three-act movies, with each “second half” starting when the games begin. After an interesting open involving what is expected of Katniss and Peeta’s “romance” in terms of public presentation, the first half is quickly weighed down by procedural repetition. There is a reaping (contestant selection) again. Katniss is emotionally torn from her sister again. There is a train ride to The Capitol again. Haymitch preaches alliances and currying favor to earn sponsors again. The duo rides into the arena and their clothes spectacularly burn again. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) interviews the star-crossed lovers again. Katniss twirls so her dress burns again (albeit with a cooler result … but still). There is a training sequence with an assessment of the competition again.
Is it done better than in the original? Yes. However, I’ll remind you that this is a sequel, not a remake. What the filmmakers miss is an opportunity to delve deeper into the machinations of puppet master President Snow. He has a very complex relationship with Katniss but that is never explored, which is a shame. Also unexplored is how the oppressed folk across the Districts are inspired to uprise. The notion that Katniss’ victory-by-exploitation of the system can be taken at face value at the end of the first film, but this film needs to flesh out how her victory translates to that, and it doesn’t. There is also a too-quick moment about the surviving family members of those that died in the previous Games. Some type of look into not just the loss, but the senselessness of the Games and that they caused the loss, would have been emotionally appealing. Alas. Thus endeth the first half.
The second half here is also like an improved second half of the first film. The action is more intense (I like the fog, I could do without the monkeys, I like the birds), and the supporting allies are more interesting, particularly Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). But ultimately it’s an exercise in outdoing the second half of the first film. The stunts are bigger, the perils are bigger, the traps are more clever, but in the end it’s still people killing people until one remains (or two, of course). I’m not bothered by the lethal aspect of it, I’m bothered by the been there/done that/got the Happy Meal toy feeling I get from watching it … again.
It’s all very much remake-y, not sequel-y … until the last scene. THAT scene is spectacular. Having not read the books, I didn’t see it coming, and it sets up wonderfully for what could be … could be … an epic two-part conclusion.
Of course the film is full of excellent performances, led by Hoffman (who isn’t in it enough), Lawrence, and Harrelson, although Woody was better in the first film only because he had more screen time in the first film.
My hope for the conclusion of this cinematic franchise is that it becomes a little more cerebral and touches on the sociological ramifications of the events in the film beyond “people are uprising, send more troopers and increase the floggings.” I think that will give us a nice, full feeling at the end of this movie meal.