A Review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

First, I’m sorry this is late. I promised someone I’d watch it with them over Thanksgiving.

OK then, that’s out of the way. Let’s do this.

The first Hunger Games was a perfectly fine B-movie, filled with fine performances and decent enough adventure scenes in the titular games. But the film (and the novel, although I have only read the first one) decided that its political message was something that was somehow groundbreaking and insightful. So, instead of going back and fixing the problems and logical inconsistencies that were present in the first film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes every opportunity to ram its message down our throats. I almost expected director Francis Lawrence (David Cronenberg, Duncan Jones, Alfonso Cuaron, Joe Cornish, Tomas Alfredson, and Bennett Miller were considered for the project but rejected…that’s right, David Cronenberg was rejected in a move that will enter the hall of fame of bone headed decisions) to face the camera and start screaming “Get it? GET IT?!” His style makes for a very pretentious film, one so in love with itself that it never stops to consider the best ways to get its message across.

I’ll start with the characters; none of them are particularly engaging. As I said earlier, I have not read the novel so I can’t say how well Suzanne Collins rounded her characters there. But there’s a lot missing in the film. Katniss Everdeen is shell shocked from her experiences in the first games and trying to balance her private life (including her secret lover) and her public life with Peeta. I will say that the examination of her public life and the symbol she has become to the people is effective. But the film begs an examination of her private life as well in order to show the pressure she is under and comes up short. There are several scenes in which Katniss cries and argues with Peeta about the fact that they only pretend to like each other for the cameras. This discussion was on the filmmakers’ minds. But they never took the opportunity to really explore it.

None of this is Jennifer Lawrence’s fault. She is a very talented actress and does the best with what she is given. All of the actors are like that – they’re trying their hardest with pretty thin soup. The film has two Oscar winners and an additional two Oscar nominees in its cast. And this isn’t even acknowledging Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, or Donald Sutherland. These are talented people who know how to explore their characters. With the right script, they have done exemplary things. But all are stuck in first gear, trying desperately to imply depth. President Snow should be a more interesting character but instead comes across as a Bond villain – he’s evil because that’s what the story calls for. I was so desperate for the characters to do anything that I was willing to accept Amanda Plummer quoting her most famous role in order to inject some life into the film.

The fact that the characters are not explored means that the rest of the film never finds its footing. I praised the Capitol scenes in the original film and I still like them. This may be because I recognized where they filmed some of the scenes, but they still work in creating the tension surrounding the games. I complained about how the fighters interacted with each other in the first film (they were too chummy to appear as though they were participating in a fight to the death) but I liked it more hear. They were still friendly but (minor spoilers) there was a point to it. And Jena Malone’s angry Johanna is perfect for the situation – she’s the only one who comes across as a reality TV stereotype that helps highlight the entertainment spectacle of it all. The fact her language is bleeped for broadcast was a nice touch.  But Stanley Tucci once against steals the show as the flamboyant entertainment journalist who actually could have migrated from E! television headquarters. If the Hunger Games existed, I have little doubt there would be an audience. But reality TV has become popular due to the fact that these are (supposedly) real people in competition. This means that the lack of characterization mentioned earlier confounds the effectiveness of these scenes.

Even the supposedly subtle elements of the film are actually quite obvious. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character is named Plutarch, after the Greek philosopher. Plutarch was famous for a) rejecting Epicureanism, which the society of Panem is built upon and b) discussing how religious stories are allegories that can be applied to the modern world. Do I need to go on? The film is desperate in trying to pretend that it is insightful and original. But it’s not and what should have been a nice joke is incredibly aggravating. And Plutarch is only in a few scenes without making much of an impact.

Catching Fire is not a total loss. Again, there are some great performances here, some interesting aspects of lives in the capital, and the game scenes are terrific adventure scenes. But the film is convinced it is so much more important than it really is. The film is so interested in trying to discuss our obsession with media violence and apathy toward increasing government control (while hoping people rush out to the theater and help their film can break box office records) that they completely forget about characterization. I have been avoiding comparisons thus far but at this point I think it needs to be made: Battle Royale focused far more on the kid’s reactions to their situation and their stories than trying to constantly say how wrong it was that a fascist government was making kids fight to the death. The result was a more engaging film and that message resonated more deeply with audience. Catching Fire just feels limp and as a result can’t get what should be a simple statement across in a convincing way.

Hate mail to the usual address, please.

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