IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 146 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark return home to District 12, but have to embark on a ‘Victor’s Tour’ of the districts. On the day they are due to begin their touring, Katniss is visited by President Snow, who explains that when she defied the Capitol by breaking the rules so that she and Peeta both survived the last Hunger Games, she inspired rebellions in districts and now must continue to pretend to be in love with Peeta or her family will be killed. They do their tour and see firsthand that an uprising is brewing, then Peeta proposes to Katniss in public. Snow, watching them, reads out that the 75th Hunger Games will be the Quarter Quell, an event taking place every 25 years in which a new rule is added to the game: contestants will be reaped from the existing pool of victors….
The Hunger Games surprised me, to be honest. I mistakenly got the impression it was another Twilight, and was fully prepared to mock it and tear it apart in my review for that film. Instead, I ended up praising more than criticising, even if there were still considerable flaws, mostly from Gary Ross’s shoddy direction, and of course it’s all a teen orientated version of the far superior Japanese movie Battle Royale. There was noise made about an American remake of that film a while back which now doesn’t appear to be happening [though there may be a TV series], the main reason probably being the success of the first, and now the second, film of Suzanne Collins’ ‘young adult’ novels, books which people keep telling me to read, but I don’t see the point of doing that if the films are as close to the books as I have been led to believe. Ignoring for the moment that Catching Fire is based on a book than many have read but not myself, this first sequel basically follows the rule that most sequels of the action variety attempt to obey: Bigger and Better, but often failing at the Better part. Catching Fire just about succeeds in doing that, though, again as with many sequels, it’s basically the same film all over again, at least after the first third.
Now the biggest flaw of the first film, something that made it hard for me personally to enjoy in several places, was the god-awful ‘shakycam’ and eye-hurting cutting during the action. The latter was probably done to give more of an impression of graphic violence than actually properly showing it, but movies have managed to successfully imply stuff you don’t actually see since they began, and only in the last ten years or so have filmmakers felt only able to do this by making cutting scenes to within an inch of their life. So what does Francis Lawrence [whose Constantine I am a big fan of but who otherwise tends to make forgettable, average pictures] do with the sequel? He retains the much criticised shakycam and hyper-fast cutting – honestly, don’t believe what you may have read about Catching Fire not containing this. However, he doesn’t employ it quite so much and mostly restricts it to the action scenes, unlike film number one where the epileptic cameraman couldn’t seem to keep it still even when people are in a queue. Some, though certainly not all, of the action scenes remain very hard to make out in Catching Fire and I see films like this causing me to wear glasses one day, but unfortunately most action in films at the moment is shot like this. Think of all the classic action movies from a while back like Die Hard, Speed and Hard Boiled. They didn’t feel a need to not actually let you see the action properly.
Anyway, that’s enough moaning, because for at least the first third, Catching Fire is very good indeed, right from the opening scene which cleverly mirrors a similar moment in its predecessor. We get far more sense of the world the characters live in, a world not dissimilar from our own. In fact, thinking about the way many countries are ruled, and the direction other countries are heading [and I certainly include Britain in this], with the gaps between rich and poor ever widening and rulers becoming increasingly repressive and inept, it seems entirely believable. Lawrence gives us lots of wide shots, unlike the somewhat claustrophobic first film, while cinematographer Jo Willems shoots the early scenes in the Districts with very muted colours, emphasising the state of the life that the poor live there, and later contrasting nicely with the garishness of the rich folk. The political element is sometimes a little simplistic, and the commentary on other things like game shows heavy-handed and to be honest no more sophisticated than The Running Man, but at least such stuff exists in these films. I think that it’s great these books and films are being devoured by young people, especially it seems girls, because for a start they may make them think about important issues instead of whether they’d like to sleep with either a vampire or a werewolf.
There are some very strong early scenes in this film. One especially good moment begins with Peeta, having been given a speech to read out to people as part of the Victor’s Tour that he and Katniss have to embark on, throwing the bit of paper away and voicing his thoughts instead. Katniss follows this with a really inspiring speech of her own, and Jennifer Lawrence is so good here that her character really seems like somebody whom people will listen to and who could even become a leader if given half a chance. An old guy in the crowd begins to whistle a tune, actually the same tune that Katniss used during the 74th Hunger Games to inform Rue she was safe, and provides the three-finger salute of District 12. Everyone joins in the salute, and it’s one of those corny but damn rousing moments – remember “FREEDOM” at the end of Braveheart [okay it’s nowhere near that but it’s the same kind of thing] – where you have a lump in your throat and feel both sad and uplifted at the same time. Not enough films attempt this type of thing these days. Anyway, the old man is suddenly dragged away and shot in full view of everyone, and you can just make out the back of his head getting blown off before some doors are shut. Lawrence does a good job of suggesting brutality in a scene soon after, where a character is publically whipped, and emphasises real human nastiness and fear. Catching Fire is a 12A, but it’s sometimes very intense. Think about how tame and harmless something like the Thor movies, both of which could be PGs, are by comparison, and it really rams home how ridiculous the 12A rating, a rating which now seems to be virtually required by would-be blockbusters, really is. They may as well rate every single film a 12A.
The story certainly wrong-footed me a couple of times, especially with its love triangle, a love triangle that actually doesn’t really develop, though keeping one of the two main male characters injured and off-screen for more than two thirds of the film was not a good idea. In any case, Catching Fire gets increasingly less interesting when Katniss and Peeta have to participate in more games and it basically feels like we are watching a remake of the first film. The lengthy build-up introduces us to some interesting contestants, from a woman who has sharpened her teeth to a couple who, in the competition they won, hibernated and then showed themselves when everyone else was dead, but not enough of these characters actually do anything in the actual Games, and why does one strip off in a lift? I guess it’s a moment which is explained in the book, but it’s very random here. Having the contestants all former winners mean that these Games lack the edge of those in the first film where you had teenagers who had to become killers, and, while there are some very exciting moments – the most thrilling perhaps being an encounter with poisonous gas – there isn’t much of a climax. As with most middle chapters in a series [though of course the third book is being split into two, something that failed to work for the Harry Potter and Twilight films except in terms of money making but never mind], this one ends rather suddenly, but its twist is a good one and certainly makes sense.
Lawrence is again superb: just look at the way her face reacts when she sees on TV that more Games are going to happen. I’m still not convinced by Josh Hutcherson, but who cares when you’ve got the wonderful Stanley Tucci with hair and purple eyebrows as the most annoying yet oddly likeable game-show host ever. Woody Harrelson is as entertaining as before too. Composer James Newton Howard seems to require a project which he really likes for him to deliver a really good score, and he does that here, his music really adding to the emotion and intensity of some moments. When his memorable main theme plays over the contestants parading around the arena like the charioteers in Ben-Hur, it’s a great old-school moment in a film which, while it certainly has its aspects which hold it back, mostly either because of the limitations of its source material or its uneven direction, is as decent a piece of blockbuster entertainment as we can expect in these days of run-of-the-mill efforts like Thor: The Dark World or absolute garbage like Man Of Steel becoming huge hits.