It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, so arguably I’m not the target demographic for the new movie ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’. To compensate, I brought along my 17 y.o. daughter and this review represents both our perspectives. Her comments are in italics. And both of us have read all three books and seen the first film.
DT: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is not a very likable girl, and it’s puzzling why both Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are so enamored of her. She’s self-absorbed and sullen, rarely smiling and just as likely to ignore either boy as offer them a hug. For their own parts, the boys aren’t much better. Gale is the “bad boy” miner who has been friends with “katnip” since they were young children and Peeta is an alarmingly boring, colorless baker’s son who has adored Katniss from afar since they were young, but even in the midst of the first ‘Hunger Games’ movie he can’t actually just tell her he likes her.
AT: What gets to me is the fact that there is essentially no background story on any of the characters in the movie. We have no idea who they are as people beyond the confines of the Games. Sure, Katniss is one heck of an archer, Gale has the wounded ex-boyfriend thing going on, and Peeta… is noble? But who are they as people? I think they could have made the movie franchise much better with even a few “flashbacks” of memories from the past.
DT: The first film, ‘The Hunger Games’, ended with Katniss having not just survived the titular “games” (which are an imaginative reworking of the survival game in the great Japanese film ‘Battle Royale’) but also having game things so that her fellow District 12 representative Peeta has survived. They have, however, brought on the wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who recognizes in Katniss the danger of a martyr who offers the oppressed citizens of Panem a symbol behind whom they can rally. Think “Jonathan E.” in ‘Rollerball’.
AT: Katniss is a very reluctant hero and this second film opens with her out hunting with Gale and having flashbacks of her terrifying experiences in the Games. When she’s with Gale, he’s the boy of choice, but when Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) show up from the Capital to prepare her for the victor’s tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, she learns that she has to convince everyone — including a menacing President Snow — that it’s Peeta she loves. So she switches. Or does she? Do we even care?
This was a common theme in the book as well that annoyed my friends to no end. Just pick a boy already, Katniss!
DT: The tour sequence is like a short visit to the film ‘1984‘, with dirty industrial zones, everything in a muted grey palette and Stormtroopers everywhere in full face masks. They look more like extras from the new ‘Star Wars’ sequel than anything else. It becomes clear that the citizens of these beleaguered districts see Katniss as a symbol of hope, of rebellion against the totalitarian government.
As a consequence, Snow declares that the next Hunger Games is going to be a “quarter quell”, where two of the victors from each District must again compete in the Games. No surprise, Katniss and Peeta end up representing District 12 (speaking of which, why doesn’t Gale volunteer to replace Peeta if he’s so in love with Katniss?) and unlike the first film, this time the competitors include both the agile and dangerous and the old and infirm.
Just like a game of ‘Risk’, there’s really no way to have allies in a game where the ultimate goal is to kill everyone else. Katniss and Peeta certainly try as their behavior becomes more daftly noble and illogical, partnering up with the enjoyable Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), his grandmother Mags (Lynn Cohen) in a completely forgettable role and Johanna (Jena Malone), the goth who was by far the most interesting of all the tributes in this film.
But Hunger Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has created a particularly nefarious arena for the 75th Hunger Games, an arena designed to constantly put Katniss at a disadvantage and ultimately kill her to quell the growing uprising. Or perhaps not. Unfortunately, Hoffman is hands down one of the worst performers in ‘Catching Fire’, often looking and acting like he just walked in off the street and hasn’t gotten “into character” yet on the set. It makes Plutarch a completely unbelievable character and his interplay with the evil Snow comes across more like a rehearsal than anything else. Even his costuming is inexplicable, modern street clothes in the midst of a massive party at the Capital where everyone else, even Katniss and Peeta, are in bright, elaborate costumes.
There’s lots to like in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’, however. The exterior shots of the Capital are terrific, the costumes are wonderful and if the film steals visuals and ideas from a cornucopia of other movies, well, that’s how films work, right? The challenges that Katniss and team face in the Games arena are quite well realized (including a poisonous fog and vicious troop of baboons), even if there’s no-one in this film whose death has the emotional impact of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) being killed in the first movie.
Actually, I disagree. When Katniss and Peeta travel the 12 districts on their “Victory Tour”, Katniss meets and has a moment of connection with Rue’s family.
Let me just say that I am a huge Jennifer Lawrence fan. I think she’s one of the more grounded and relatable celebs in the industry and I really admire her for that. Having seen ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, I’m able to compare her acting between the two movies, and I have to say, I just don’t feel like ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ is the best she can do. Not to say it isn’t entertaining, because it is, but I think Jen may be known as “The Girl on Fire” for a little too long. Can you say “Teen Disney Star Syndrome”?
DT: Still, this is a good DVD rental rather than expensive Saturday night movie ticket purchase. It’s a teen film and unless that’s your thing — and unless you felt the ‘Twilight’ movies were deep and profound — you might just find this a surprisingly banal, albeit visually stunning waste of 146 minutes of your life. Oh, and keep the younger kids at home. There are a number of surprisingly intense sequences that are going to prove disturbing to younger teens.