Hunger Games: Catching Fire came out in November. I finally saw it last weekend . . . with about forty other slackers who randomly decided to also watch the film months after it opened. Bastards. One of these days I’m going to go see a movie with no one else in the theater but me and my friends. Alas, last Saturday was not that day.
On the positive side, I really enjoyed the hell out of Catching Fire.
Spoilers for The Hunger Games. If you haven’t seen or read that one yet . . . well, why are you reading the review for the sequel, anyway?
Rebellion threatens Panem after the events of the last Hunger Games, so President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) collaborate to create a brand new Hunger Games, All Star Style. Starring, of course, our very own reluctant heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence).
1. Let’s establish this right away: I didn’t read Catching Fire. I read The Hunger Games with the full intention of finishing the trilogy . . . but never quite got around to it. So unlike the last film, I’m not really judging this one as an adaptation.
As a sequel, however . . . I think it’s very good. In fact, I think I liked it better than the first film, and I’m one of the people who LIKED The Hunger Games adaptation. (I hesitate to say that Catching Fire is better than its predecessor with full certainty, though, because I’ve only seen The Hunger Games once, back when it first released. I’d need a second viewing to better judge both films.)
One of the things I especially liked in this movie was how the story dealt with all the PTSD stuff. It’s a big deal for me because it’s one of those things that often drives me nuts about sequels or television or any kind of serial storytelling: heroes who are seemingly unaffected by all the crazy traumatic shit that happened to them last movie/season/episode/whatever. I like consequences and I like callbacks, and I was happy to see that Katniss wasn’t all, oh yeah, I’m a badass survivor now, I can handle anything. She’s traumatized the way someone in her situation totally would be.
2. Of course, a lot of the excellence here can be attributed to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance.
I read a review — I wish I could remember where — saying that Lawrence worked just as hard on a big-budget action blockbuster as a David O. Russell critical darling. The reviewer’s surprise seemed evident, and I remember my initial reaction was to be annoyed, likely out of sheer defensiveness — I, after all, quite like popcorn stories, and my own particular writing talents lean far more towards the commercial than the literary. I might have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the idea that people need not strive for excellence in commercial fiction, that stories which aspire to be ‘fun’ in some sense can be good but never great.
So, yes. My immediate reaction was very much, Oh, screw you, reviewer — but the thing is, he or she is kind of right. There are plenty of actors out there who wouldn’t have put this much energy or work into their performance. For instance: I think Natalie Portman’s a great actress, and I do like her in some big budget blockbusters — the Thor movies, e.g., — but I’ve also seen her in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and while I know the script is TERRIBLE in that film, I’m really not sure you get that kind of a performance unless you’re not trying at all. I feel the same way about some of the movies Liam Neeson pops up in — Clash of the Titans most readily springs to mind — or Morgan Freeman in Dreamcatcher or even Kristen Stewart in Twilight. (I’m not quite the Kristen Stewart apologist that my friend Henry is, and I don’t believe she’s on par with the other actors I’ve just mentioned. Still, I feel like there’s more to her than Bella Swan — or at least I hope so because she is almost as bad as Robert Pattinson in that movie.)
Anyway. Jennifer Lawrence never seems like she’s just cashing another paycheck in this film. She throws herself hard into the role of Katniss. There is a ton of power in her performance, and in a movie filled with a lot of quality actors, she remains unequivocally the shining star.
3. Let’s briefly go over some of the other returning cast:
Gale (Liam Hemsworth)
Fortunately, Gale seems to have grown a tiny bit of a personality since The Hunger Games — where I found his performance, all seven minutes of it, excruciatingly wooden. Unfortunately, that personality appears to be manifesting primarily as whininess. There’s this one part where he’s whimpering about Katniss’s fake love affair with Peeta, and Katniss is all like, “Dude, I did what I had to do to survive,” and Gale kisses her and is like, “Well, I had to do that,” and I’m like, “Yeah, you ASSCLOWN. That’s TOTALLY the same thing. Absolutely on par.”
In the war between Team Gale vs Team Peeta — I know I’m biased. For one thing, I like Josh Hutcherson — he totally won my heart in Detention. For another, Liam Hemsworth has really had very little screen time in the past two movies to develop a character. But so far, I’m not really getting the impression that he’s contributing much to the role. I really hope I feel differently about him in the next few movies because, at this point, I’m having trouble figuring out what Katniss even sees in Gale, other than his body. (And I’m not actually overly impressed by his body. I know Liam Hemsworth is normally a quite decent looking man, but I don’t think he looks as attractive in these movies as he does in real life. I just don’t think the clean shaven, bottle-dyed brunette is a particularly good look on him.)
Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)
Peeta certainly looks better than he did in the last movie, thankfully. I’m pretty sure it’s because they didn’t bleach his eyebrows this time. Somebody finally learned that bleaching eyebrows almost always leads to failure.
Like I said, I’ve got a soft spot for Josh Hutcherson, and I enjoy him in Catching Fire. I still feel like Peeta’s not exactly the way I remember him from the book, but he seems a bit more rounded in this film, maybe because I enjoy his occasional muttered snarky asides. He is certainly far less annoying than Gale, and I think he and Jennifer Lawrence have better chemistry. (Jesus Christ, I just spent far too much time watching interviews with these two. They are hilarious. I especially like this one. “I would never want White Cheddar Cheez-Its.” HA. Oh, oh also “How about an Oscar?” Dying right now. If these guys are faking their friendship for these interviews, they are phenomenally talented actors, more so than I even realized.)
Here’s the thing: I actually don’t know who Katniss ends up with. And, honestly, it’s not hugely important to me that she gets together with Peeta. But if Peeta meets some terrible and fiery doom, while Katniss marries Uber Boring Gale and have uber boring babies post Revolution . . . or if Peeta gets together with Prim for some totally random and horrible reason . . . I think I’m going to be disappointed.
Effie (Elizabeth Banks)
Apologies for Peeta photobombing half the picture, but I had to get Effie in her butterfly dress. Her outfits continue to be amazing. I would happily cosplay the hell out of this or her crazy purple dress.
I liked Effie in the first movie, but I like her even better here. Elizabeth Banks does a very good job of capturing what a silly, superficial woman Effie is without making her evil and terrible. She has a surprisingly human quality to her despite being utterly ridiculous, and I really enjoyed watching that come out in Catching Fire.
Haymitch (Woody Harrelson)
Woody Harrelson continues to be awesome. I don’t know if I have anything particularly deep to add to that. He’s just awesome.
4. And as far as new cast goes . . .
Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
I saw this movie only a day before Philip Seymour Hoffman died. I saw the movie, went to work, went to bed, and when I woke up, he was dead. It’s a strange feeling.
Hoffman was in a lot of critically beloved movies, many of which I unfortunately haven’t seen. I seem to remember liking him in Cold Mountain and Magnolia, though. Also, he played Dusty in Twister, which is a role I expect no one else cares about, but Twister is a guilty pleasure, and I loved him in that movie. His death came too soon, and it’s a very sad thing.
As far as his work here . . . it’s perfectly decent. I don’t think the role requires him to do anything particularly spectacular, at least not yet. I’ll have to see how Plutarch develops over the course of the next two movies. I’m happy that they aren’t recasting his role, but it’s weird to realize we’ll be seeing his face in theaters for almost two full years after his passing.
Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin)
Finnick is enjoyable enough. Honestly, I didn’t have much feeling on him one way or another, but I’m pretty sure he had some decent lines and he’s not exactly hard to look at. I’m not convinced the dye job does him any favors, either — but he has an accent to make up for it, so. I’ll allow it.
Johanna Mason (Jena Malone)
Other than Jennifer Lawrence, the main standout of this movie is definitely Jena Malone. She’s awesome in this — Johanna is pissed off and rebellious and I was rooting for her pretty much immediately. There’s a ton of energy in Malone’s performance, and your eye is drawn to her whenever she’s on screen. I’m happy for her, too, because I’ve always liked the actress, and critics seem to be praising her work in this movie across the board.
5. I was initially less interested in this film when I watched the trailer and realized they were just going to throw Katniss into another Hunger Games. It seemed a little cheap to me, like we didn’t know what to do with our sequel, so here! Another Hunger Games! But I actually mostly liked how it turned out. I especially liked the addition of a few adults in the Games — I guess I figured everyone participating would simply be super attractive twenty-somethings, which, well. There are a number of those, but there are also people certainly upwards of thirty too, and I found that interesting.
6. There are also lots of shocks and electrocutions in this movie. The kid from Jurassic Park would feel right at home in this game.
7. Finally, Catching Fire runs a bit long — it’s very nearly two hours and thirty minutes — but I was generally entertained throughout, and it didn’t feel nearly as stretched as I thought it might. I do think there are a few problems with the third act, but overall I think it’s a very enjoyable movie, and I’m actually pretty excited to see the next one in the franchise.
More about those problems, and the film in general, below.
A second disclaimer: the spoilers in this section are only for Catching Fire and The Hunger Games and not for Mockingjay. I would ask that you not discuss Mockingjay in the comments section. If you absolutely must discuss it, at least mark it appropriately with spoiler warnings so I can properly ignore everything you’re saying.
The movie begins back in District 12. Katniss tries to hunt turkeys with Gale but freaks out when she hallucinates the boy she shot with an arrow. It’s a nicely done scene. She and Gale also lock lips for a couple of seconds in what is probably supposed to be a romantic moment. Yawn. This is less well done.
Katniss and Peeta are supposed to go on a Victory Tour, but President Snow drops by for an unexpected visit before they can take off.
Snow tells Katniss all about the rebellion that’s threatening to tear the twelve districts apart. (I didn’t mention Donald Sutherland earlier, but he’s . . . fine. I’ve seen a number of reviewers criticize him for a hammy performance, but I don’t mind him in this movie. I just don’t find him particularly note-worthy, either.) He demands that she sell her gratitude and allegiance to the Capitol and, also, make sure everyone believes her relationship with Peeta is genuine . . . otherwise there will be hell to pay.
One of the things I really like about this movie is that Katniss is a very reluctant heroine. She is headstrong and brave and a good hunter, but that doesn’t mean she’s fearless. She’s very scared of President Snow, and what he could do to both her and everyone she loves. (And for good reason, too, as we’ll learn by the end of the film.) And while she has moments of selflessness — like sticking up for Gale when he’s getting whipped — her instincts also lean towards self-preservation, and for most of this film she’s far more interested in getting things back to normal than leading any kind of rebellion. It’s all good, well-rounded stuff and makes me like her character even more.
So Katniss and Peeta go on their victory tour, which doesn’t go particularly well.
When they’re at District 11, Peeta forgoes the cue cards to give a more honest speech about the loss of Rue and Thresh and donates some of his money to their families. Katniss then also gives an honest speech, which moves the District 11 people to do the whole three fingered salute thing, which results in this old man being executed. So not a promising start.
Katniss suggests that she and Peeta get married to keep President Snow off their backs. Peeta agrees to the marriage with all the enthusiasm of a man walking to his execution by firing squad, but in all fairness to him, he does get over his whininess pretty early in the film and admits that he knows she was just doing what she had to do by pretending to love him and that she’s the only reason he’s alive. It’s nice to hear, and it’s yet another reason why I like him more than Gale.
The marriage engagement is a big hit, but it’s not enough to stop the rebellion. So Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Head Gamemaker, cooks up what’s basically an All Star Hunger Games Tournament, where the survivors of the last 74 years worth of Games are eligible to become the new tributes. Everyone is pretty horrified by this, and the reaction shots of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson are all pretty terrific.
Katniss is basically doomed to go because she’s the only girl from District 12 who’s ever won. When Haymitch’s name gets called, though, Peeta automatically volunteers as tribute, and they’re both whisked away without so much as a goodbye to their loved ones. Also, Katniss and Peeta don’t get their big wedding day, to no one’s actual surprise.
Haymitch encourages them to make allies during the training session, but Katniss doesn’t really trust anyone. She does make some connections with the less overtly frightening people: an older couple of tech nerds, for instance, and super old Mags, who is apparently too frail for words because she never talks. Mags, like Peeta, also volunteered (presumably by raising her hand) as tribute in place of another. Katniss seems to like her well enough but doesn’t trust Finnick from the same district at all. (To be fair, I wouldn’t have trusted him either. Finnick supposedly tries to charm Katniss, I think, but he comes off far more arrogant and skeezy than trustworthy.)
Also during the training: Katniss make a Seneca puppet, which she promptly hangs for the judges. It’s pretty awesome.
We then move on to the interviews, which means the the incomparable Stanley Tucci and his exceedingly white teeth are back.
Katniss has a nice moment where her wedding dress turns into a mockingjay rebellion dress, courtesy of Cinna, but it’s Peeta’s tearful and quite false confession of Katniss’s pregnancy that makes me really clap with my hands with glee. Gale wouldn’t tearfully confess anything in order to manipulate the audience into rioting. (Okay, okay, I swear I’m done with the Team Peeta stuff.)
Despite everyone’s dissatisfaction, President Snow refuses to cancel the Hunger Games Numero Dos. Cinna sees Katniss off, and once Katniss is safely locked away in a tube, some Capitol guys come and beat the shit out of Cinna . . . to death? I certainly assumed he was being dragged off for execution, but since we don’t see him die, I guess he could return. Anyway, Katniss watches all this in horror and is immediately lifted up into the arena. And so the games begin.
We quickly figure out that Haymitch has arranged for Finnick (and by extension, Mags) to be an ally, whether Katniss likes it or not. They both try to save Peeta, who is in the process of fighting with another tribute underwater, but Peeta surprisingly manages to save himself by — presumably — drowning the other tribute instead. I say presumably because we don’t actually see much of it and, for all I know, a giant shark came up and ate the tribute. This is about the last time Peeta will be useful in any real capacity, which kind of makes me wish we’d seen his POV on the fight, but honestly, I sort of love that he is the damsel in distress here. A lot of people have been critical about that, but it sort of tickles me that the boy is the artistic, lovestruck one who has only manipulation, charm, and his girlfriend’s giant ass bow to protect him.
Of course, Peeta is the one to run into a giant ass forcefield, which immediately stops his heart. (Don’t worry. He gets better . . . courtesy of Finnick’s lips. I hope to hell there’s some fanfiction in that.) He’s also the first one to fall to the poisonous fog — although in his defense, that’s mostly from helping Katniss up when she falls. Mags sacrifices herself so that Finnick’s arms are free to carry Peeta out of there. Later, when monkeys attack — God, that should be a button: Later, when monkeys attack — another random tribute sacrifices herself to rescue Peeta, making that two women who have saved his life, thoroughly confusing the hell out of him.
We find out (later) that about half the Tributes are in on the rebellion, and their primary goal is to save Katniss and Peeta. (Well, Katniss. Peeta’s secondary for obvious reasons.) This includes Johanna, who saves our older tech nerds Wiress and Beetee from blood raining from the sky. Jena Malone, by the way, pissed off, covered in blood, and screaming on the beach? Awe-some.
Wiress goes kind of nuts and is killed off as soon as she makes a semi-useful contribution about how the island is structured. Beetee proposes a plan to use some giant tree to help electrocute the last couple of evil tributes, or something. Katniss doesn’t trust anyone other than Peeta and thinks the two of them should take off the second they get the chance. However — after a tender moment on the beach — Katniss and Peeta are separated, and everything all goes to hell.
Katniss and Johanna are carrying this wire for the Big Plan when it snaps. The last two evil tributes show up, and Johanna attacks Katniss, cuts into her arm, and tells her to play dead. (She’s actually pulling a tracker out of Katniss’s arm, but we don’t know that until later.) The tributes run after Johanna. Meanwhile, Katniss goes back for Peeta but only finds Beetee unconscious.
When Finnick approaches, Katniss nearly shoots him — which is exactly what President Snow is hoping for, as murdering her allies will prove that she’s not the hero everyone thinks she is. Finnick tells Katniss to remember who the real enemy is, something that Haymitch also (and not coincidentally) told her. Katniss instead fires at the forcefield around the dome just as the lightning starts up.
This causes the power in the arena to go out and the forcefields to shut down. It also knocks Katniss unconscious as some kind of aircraft hovers above and lifts her away.
Katniss wakes up to find Beetee unconscious beside her and Finnick, Haymitch, and Plutarch arguing in the other room. She learns all about the secret rebellion. She also finds out that Joanna and Peeta were captured by the bad guys and taken to the Capitol. This is where Katniss loses her shit, attacking Haymitch because he promised to take care of Peeta first. (Of course, he made the same basic promise to Peeta, and like I said before, Katniss is clearly not the expendable one here.) Plutarch sedates Katniss, and she’s out again. Also, Jennifer Lawrence is pretty fantastic in this scene.
Katniss wakes up once more, but this time Gale is by her side. Katniss asks if they’re home, and you can see the answer on Gale’s face before he tells her that District 12 is no more. It got bombed to shit, although he did manage to get her family out in time. Now they’re on their way to . . . District 13. Katniss gets her game face on, and that’s about where we end the movie.
Now. My biggest problem with this film is definitely the last fifteen to twenty minutes of action. Throughout Beetee’s plan, we stick very close to Katniss’s POV here — which can be a great way of raising tension, since we only know what she knows. Problem is, I feel like the action gets pretty muddled as a result. The evil tributes who pop up to attack feel like they come out of nowhere, and not in the good way. This could be because none of the evil tributes are particularly memorable or distinct from one another once they’re on the island, and you kind of keep forgetting about them in the wake of giant forcefields and big ass lightning strikes and showers of blood and pissed off monkeys. They aren’t a source of menace or fear like they are in the first movie, taking some of the human element of the game . . . which, admittedly, does kind of thematically make sense, since this whole movie is about everyone — including the tributes — being so angry at the system that they put their lives on the line to join forces and rebel. But I still feel like a bit of the horror is lost, which makes me sad.
Also, I presume the evil tributes are supposed to have cut the wire that Katniss and Johanna are carrying, but the way the scene is shot . . . I just think it could have been a lot clearer. Especially since I also presume the same evil tributes must have attacked Beetee, Finnick, and Peeta first, and there doesn’t seem like there’s been enough time for that. We’re left with a lot unseen, which I might be able to forgive if we see these events in the third movie from the POV of any or all of the guys . . . but if we don’t, I think that’s a problem for me.
I’m also not entirely sure what the hell Plutarch’s plan was to get the good guys out of the arena safely. After all, it’s Katniss who breaks the damn place, and she didn’t know about the whole secret rebellion op. It seems pretty clearly an improvisation on her part, but if she hadn’t done it . . . what would have happened? Could they have escaped some other way? Would electrocuting the bad tributes have somehow also shut the arena down? Did Beetee always count on Katniss shooting the sky with an arrow? Pardon me if I’m missing something, but I didn’t find this clear from the film at all.
On the plus side, cliffhanger! And Johanna is, shockingly, still alive. I totally assumed she was going to bite it going into this movie, so it’s nice to know I haven’t seen the last of Jena Malone. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t read Catching Fire before I saw the film, but I feel like I had a little extra fun in theater, not knowing what was going to happen, and I’m way more excited to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 than I was a week ago. I won’t even make fun of the fact that they split the third book into two movies, since I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not really large enough to warrant the cut.
Dammit. Do I really have to wait all the way until November? Curse you, Catching Fire. Curse you.
Effie: “Eyes bright, chins up, smiles on. I’m talking to you, Katniss.”
Peeta: “See, Katniss, the way the whole ‘friend’ thing works is that you have to tell each other the deep stuff.”
Katniss: “The deep stuff?”
Katniss: “Like what?”
Peeta: “Like . . . what’s your favorite color?”
Katniss: “Oh, now you’ve stepped over the line.”
Finnick: “I haven’t dealt in anything as common as money in years.”
Katniss: “Well, then, how do people pay for the pleasure of your company?”
Katniss: “It must be a fragile system, if it can be brought down by just a few berries.”
Katniss: “What’s with her teeth?”
Haymitch: “She had them filed into fangs so she could rip people’s throats out.”
Peeta: “She’s committed, I’ll give her that.”
Peeta: “We wanted our love to be eternal. You know, Katniss and I were luckier than most. I wouldn’t have any regrets at all, if it weren’t for . . . if . . .”
Caesar: “If it weren’t for . . . what? What?”
Peeta: “If it weren’t for the baby.”
President Snow: “They’re holding hands. I want them dead.”
Finnick: “I guess we’re not holding hands anymore.”
Peeta: “So if you can stop looking at me like I’m wounded, I can quit acting like it.”
Peeta: “Be careful. There’s a forcefield up there.”
Peacekeeper: “She was interfering with a peacekeeper!”
Haymitch: “I never said she was smart.”
Peeta: “It’s cozy.”
Very enjoyable. I still find Gale dull, and I think the action sequences in the last twenty minutes are problematic, but I’m pretty impressed with how they handled this sequel, and I’m eager to see the next one. Oh, and apparently I’m totally Team Peeta now. Shit. That almost certainly means he’s going to die.
Jennifer Lawrence. But Jena Malone gets an honorable mention.
You have to know when to stand up and fight
for your right to party.