On December 22nd 2013, I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire at 3:15 PM Matinee. Catching Fire is a much better film than the first, though I’m not sure whether or not this has to do with the change in Directors, or the shift in source material. I don’t particularly remember the first movie doing a great job of explaining the circumstances of the post-apocalyptic Panem, and I thought the film wasted a lot of thematic potential. I remember thinking that too much time was spent explaining how important sponsors were, making the children from districts 1-4 seem straight-up evil, and milking the death of one particular child for all it was worth. I was frustrated at the end of The Hunger Games, because it wasn’t as good as I thought it could have been and to be clear, I haven’t read the books, my high expectations were completely born from my interest in the premise of the world itself.
At the end of Catching Fire, I was again frustrated, but for different reasons – but I’ll get into that later. Catching Fire spent about 2/3rds of its time outside of The 75th Annual Hunger Games, and I really loved that. Outside of the games are where the conflicts between the Districts and The Capitol really shine. I felt like the first movie rushed through this time to build thematic interest, and glorified the games perhaps a little too much. In steps Catching Fire, which paces itself oddly, I’ll admit – but in a way that I really liked. All of this build-up and dread leading towards the games; you understand that the stakes are higher – The Hunger Games mean more than just another gesture of power this time around – it’s about eliminating the rebellious victors. The action of the games is shot better, no more shaky-cam, and the games end in a pretty dramatic and surprising fashion that I never saw coming.
I still don’t understand why a love triangle was written into these books, at all. At all. Really, when people’s lives are at stake, when we’re on the brink of war, why am I supposed to care about whether Katniss loves Peeta or Gale? When Katniss gives Peeta a kiss on the beach, during a moment of peace during The 75th Hunger Games, an entire row of pre-teen-to-teen girls gave “oh’s” and giggles. How reductive is that? Lives are at stake and there’s a entire audience of Hunger Game fans who can only think in terms of “Team Peeta” or “Team Gale.”
I love Jennifer Lawrence as much as her next fan, though mostly for work in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Winter’s Bone (2010), but her performance isn’t the best of the film – and that probably has more to do with what Katniss is given to do in this movie. When Katniss is reduced to a pawn, and lacks control of her fate, is then any surprise that the actors who walk away with this film are the ones playing characters with power? Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s Plutarch Heavensbee steals every scene he’s in, a suspicious, seemingly devious imp with something up his sleeve at every turn. Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman who’s delivery of the words “Hunger Games” rings forever in my ears, who’s fanboydom for Katniss is at once cute and ironic, in that she’s bringing down the very games he loves, and who’s world starts to crumble around him – as even his circus ringmaster tactics can’t stop the victors from showing their strength against The Capitol. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy, Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, and oh my goodness, Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason. Why isn’t Johanna the star of The Hunger Games? Unhinged, wild, rebellious, brave, committed; she got out of her Hunger Games alive and isn’t happy about the Quarter-Quell rules that forced her back into the games, and she isn’t afraid to let President Snow and the citizens of The Capitol know the full extent of her fury.
So at the end of Catching Fire, I’m frustrated for a few reasons, spoilers obviously. In Katniss’ biggest moment of the film, and maybe of both films up until this point – she chooses not to kill Finnick – a character she had little reason to trust, has seemed shady the entire movie, and had not entirely trusted before – all because he tries to remind her who the real enemy is. Great acting from Lawrence here, as an internal argument inside of Katniss leads to a hard decision to let her guard down, and to release her arrow once pointed at Finnick, towards the sky. In doing so, Katniss destroys the arena made to host The Hunger Games, and her barely conscious body is air-lifted away; in a twist I honestly didn’t see coming the air-lifters turn out to be Plutarch, Haymitch, Finnick, and Gale. There had been a conspiracy all along to free her from the games, because Katniss is key to the revolution… somehow. I suppose she’s a symbol of rebellion, but here’s where I’m frustrated. I don’t think this is what Katniss was exactly going for, ever – she was turned into a symbol for rebellion, even forced into one. I’m excited to see where it goes (ended on one hell of a cliffhanger) though I’m not stoked about the third book being split into two movies (which is the worst trend in Hollywood). Thank goodness Katniss vents some anger at Haymitch because, my god, she has the right to. Can somebody tell me why she couldn’t be in the loop for this whole, let’s break Katniss out of The Hunger Games plan? The girl has PTSD, and she could have killed any number of her secret allies if she wasn’t so quick to trust. I thought it was a great plot twist and all, but a little cheap, right? The wool was pulled over our eyes because Katniss is who we follow and if she’s kept in the dark, so are we – but was she only kept in the dark so that there could be a twist ending? Wouldn’t it have made sense to keep her in the loop?
Catching Fire isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the first – but both entries in The Hunger Games series of films right now, don’t always make a lot of sense all of the time. There’s a solid idea at the core of the series, perhaps ruined by sloppy premises and not entirely water-tight world building done by the books’ author.