The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I’m sure this review will have a significant impact on the film’s box office results. Movies like ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ are essentially critic proof. Six days into its release, and the film has already crossed the $200 million mark.

As most of you know, last time Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was the teenage winner of a televised battle to the death competition known as the Hunger Games. She broke the rules by not killing the last competitor (or tribute) Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Just when you thought she was out…

The president of her capital Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is concerned that she might become a figurehead for a resistance against him. With the help of Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), he brings back all the previous winners of the Hunger Games and they have to kill each other all over again – Hunger Games All Star.

I’m not surprised by the financial success of this series; the first film also had a lot of built-in hype and people had high expectations. The film series is based on these hugely successful books that go beyond the young adult crowd at which they are aimed for. As far as franchises built around a stubborn teen heroine debating endlessly between two inexplicably patient lovers as she battles to save the world, one could do far worse than what’s offered here.

I do, however, slightly fault the film for not adhering to its own subtitle of really catching fire. Both ‘Hunger Games’ movies are on the safe side, creating dark worlds with its kids-killing-kids scenario but without any real sense of dread or horror.

Sitting in the director’s chair this time is Francois Lawrence who has already established himself as a filmmaker of dystopian futures thanks to ‘I Am Legend’ fame (a completely misunderstood masterpiece in my opinion). ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ is a marginal improvement over the first film (which was directed by Gary Ross); I am thankful that the intimate “you are there” shaky-cam approach has been abandoned this time around. The end result is a strikingly more fluid sense of motion; the camera does zero in on the faces of its performers – this gives the picture the intimate feel the first movie was going for but gives us the satisfaction of not having to reach for our barf bags or motion sickness pills.

The film is a triumph of production design; costume designer Trish Summerville is operating at the top of her game – the scene with Katniss’ glittering wedding dress transforming into a symbolically relevant black gown is exceptionally handled. A similar degree of invention is found with the cinematography and the expensively detailed settings which illustrate a futuristic dystopia without providing us with too much discomfort (which circles back to my criticism or at least personal preference in wishing the filmmakers had gone beyond the boundaries of its PG-13 constraint).

As for the performances, it certainly helps to have an Oscar winning performer (thanks to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’) at its center. I think she is an immensely likable and versatile star – she can pretty much do anything from comedy and romance to drama and action. Her character here is a teenager and she is accessible and wise beyond her years; Ms.Lawrence seems to effortlessly project supreme durability and humble vulnerability. With a lesser performer, this offering (and its predecessor) would not work as well as it does. The supporting performances are also quite strong – the best being Stanley Tucci who dazzles as the overly flamboyant game show host.

Once the games contestants are deposited into some tropical environ with a host of dangers including (but not limited to) lightning storms, poisonous fog, rampaging baboons, and bloody rain, the picture does become special-effects heavy. The budget is nearly twice that of the original and it shows – much of the avoid-the-obstacles action is excitingly staged and beautifully shot; yet, at the same time, I feel there is little to distinguish itself from the other big budget action climaxes of this movie year.

The titular action does not kick in until the 85 minute mark (and the movie runs way too long at 146 minutes). Fans of the book will disagree, but I believe there is an enormous amount of exposition in the first half of the film. With the machinery of the plot established in the first film, ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ should be better paced than it is. Though the first half isn’t entirely a retread of what we have seen in the first film, it does feel awfully familiar; perhaps a shift in locales and settings might have shaken things up a little bit. The movie also liberally borrows elements from ‘Star Wars’ – the unlikely hero who becomes the figurehead for a resistance movement against an oppressive government that wants to eliminate the rebels and use storm troopers at their disposal; the “storm troopers” here even have the same armour as the ones in ‘Star Wars’. The abrupt cliffhanger ending is also very reminiscent of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (though to be fair, the second entry just about any trilogy ends as abruptly).

My overall reaction to the experience is mixed – but ultimately, I am giving this movie a pass simply for delivering what it promises to its main target audience. QED.

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