by Ken B.
A vast improvement over an underwhelming predecessor, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire works because it is darker and deeper and more thorough and engrossing. With new director Francis Lawrence, the manic, shaky, and generally incoherent cinematography of Gary Ross is left in the dust. It is a fuller look at the political underworkings and sociopolitical satire only mentioned in passing (or not at all) in The Hunger Games, with captivating second and third acts, leading up to a startlingly effective final fifteen minutes.
Following the 74th Hunger Games, victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are sent on a victory tour. In participating in this tradition, they head across Panem (a geographic area comprising mainly of real world North America), visiting all twelve districts and making speeches – an arrogant practice, considering that these are the winners of the competition in which members of eleven of these twelve districts saw two children from their homeland die. It is also around then when we see that the dystopian government under President Snow (Donald Sutherland), has grown even more militaristic and fascist, not hesitating to publicly flog or execute any political dissenters.
Now it is time for the seventy-fifth installment of the games. Snow and Hunger Games game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (one of the last major roles of Philip Seymour Hoffman) see Katniss as a threat, a possible spark for a revolution, and conclude that she must die. As a result, different rules for the year’s games are invoked where the field of competitors must be chosen from previous victors from the twelve districts. A new arena has been designed, with new and unique lethal challenges. Now, more importantly than ever, Katniss and Peeta realize the importance of forming alliances with other competitors. By far, the one with the most screen time is Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), a self-assured and adept winner from not too long ago. Others include the mysterious Johanna (Jena Malone), the elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen), and the savvy Beetee (Jeffrey Wright).
The games, when they start, are regularly absorbing. While the 146 minute film has the tendency to drag every now and then, especially in the first act, it’s never for very long, and deemed even more insignificant by the great acting present. Of course there are good things to be expected by Sutherland, Hoffman, and Lawrence, but even the supporting actors leave a solid impression. I had never been previously very impressed by Josh Hutcherson as an actor, but he ups his game a bit here, as does Liam Hemsworth as Gale, in a smaller but important role. Relative newcomer Sam Clafin is quite good as Finnick.
The technical level of Catching Fire is exceptional. We’re finally allowed to see it now that the camera has stopped shaking. The set design of the decadent and corrupt capital of Panem is garish and eye-popping, matching the satirical nature of the costumes and hairstyles of its residents. The obstacles in the arena, from rabid monkeys to a vesicant in the form of fog, are eerie and well done. Early in the film, when the districts are toured as part of the victory tour, we see hundreds of nameless faces looking at Katniss and Peeta, symbols of the tyrannical nation they live in. This is benefited by atmospheric cinematography from Jo Willems, proving immersive in all of the vast places the movie takes us. While this is not a perfect film, with the aforementioned occasional sluggish pacing and minor plot quibbles (such as Katniss having a seemingly never ending supply of arrows), it is still efficient in its own right.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an absorbing middle entry in the popular franchise, not only working for the fans, but viewers in general. Too often filmmakers focus on adapting young adult novels for their supporters, and forgetting about the success and gratification that arises from making it an accessible film. The cast and crew under the leadership of Francis Lawrence have clearly not fallen under this trap, and with the knowledge that Lawrence will be helming the (unfortunately) two-part finale, we can rest assured that it will most likely be handled with similar amounts of the quality and skill on display here.