FAULT Reviews: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

DISCLAIMER: This writer only watched the first Hunger Games film the night before attending the preview screening of the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Firehaving missed it in cinemas and somehow dodged the hype . If you have arrived at this review of the sequel uninitiated then watch the first, fantastic, film now.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) soon after their triumph at the annual death match after which the series is named. The audience had been left in a state of uncertainty – relieved at their joint survival, but also apprehensive at the Capitol’s machinations. But the Games only exist to provide measured hope as a temper for a totalitarian fear; and from a wintry opening scene the regime proceeds to pulverize the former with a heavy-handed enforcement of the latter.

The fact that the two films in this series are, in many ways, fairground mirrors of each other, is reflected in their respective straplines. A direct crossover from the books, the first film’s ‘May the Odds be Ever in Your Favour’ is set against ‘Remember Who the Enemy Is’ in revelatory fashion. The first film establishes background before dwelling extensively on the Games ritual. The sequel, in reflecting on the widening fractures, personal and societal, that threaten to unbalance an unnatural status quo, targets the true enemy in the fictional world of Panem.

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Katniss’ first battle in the arena is seen originally as a heroic fight against the cruel establishment: by taking the actions she does, we are led to believe that hers is a direct fight against the unjust hierarchy of Panem. By contrast, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gradually unveils the levels of a deeply embedded dystopia, and the increasingly drastic measures it will take to preserve the illusion of a benevolent dictatorship.

Although the Games remain a horror to the characters, the audience begins to question whether the Game itself is any more dangerous than the world of escalating brutality that lies beyond the dome. Katniss’s dream of escape from the system – apparently promised by her victory in the first film – begins to die with the realisation that she can only lose while its authority is accepted; instead she and her allies must reject, and utterly shatter, the rules that confine them.

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When put together, the two films are cleverly constructed – that much is undeniable. The narrative arc of the first film reflects that of the sequel, albeit in an almost horribly inverted fashion. Where the brutal day to day grind of life in District 12 is seen as nightmarish in the first film, here it is almost seen as an escape from the unmentionable horrors of the Games arena. Similarly, where the first film presented the journey to the Capitol as a fleeting flirtation with fame and fortune – albeit one that the protagonists, knowing what was to come, never really bought into – here it is revealed as a descent into horror.

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Elizabeth Banks as Effie is impeccable

Against this grimmer backdrop the audience meets an even bigger supporting cast: all of them walking clichés at heart, but so vivified by the acting behind them that it doesn’t matter. Some have returned to us even better than before. Elizabeth Banks as Effie is impeccable; Woody Harrelson creates depth for mentor figure Haymitch with finesse; and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) becomes ever more disquieting as he steps out from the background. And of course Caesar (Stanley Tucci), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and many more once again bring Panem to life.

Foremost among the newcomers is Philip Seymour Hoffman, precise as the manipulative games master Plutarch. Sam Claflin performs well as returning tribute Finnick, and the brief scenes for Johanna (Jena Malone) and peace officer Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) were a pleasure. Sadly, this film is too crowded to continue singing their praises – and often the few glimpsed promises were just that. On the other hand The Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues to intrigue the audience with longevity and friend/foe guessing games, and this writer got caught out until the last few scenes.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) is precise as the manipulative games master Plutarch

The problem with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, as the second act in a quadrilogy, is its self awareness. Director Francis Lawrence‘s deconstruction of the dystopia oversteps the mark of what one can achieve in a limited time frame (even though this film is still over 2 hours long). The original introduces the protagonists, the Games and the people at the heart of the insanity; the sequel tries to delve into that and expand on the world of Panem. Where the original has a strong narrative and ends in a satisfying resolution, the sequel is essentially a lengthy set-up for what is to come. Whether intentional or not, the overall mood becomes disjointed.

Although the film brings many of the same positives – among them beautiful visuals, excellent scene building and subtly visceral combat – it also suffers much more seriously from a burgeoning amount of material to cover. Between the drama, tense action and the racing, but sometimes predictable, plot, the audience is overburdened with emotional demands. Lawrence and Hutcherson are great in their roles, but have particularly suffered in this film. Their characters’ personal struggles, and Katniss’s conflict with the all-too-obvious destiny laid out for her, stretch any initial anticipation or interest thin.

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President Snow (Donald Sutherland) becomes ever more disquieting as he steps out from the background

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has to be judged as part of an ongoing series. Ultimately it is a well made and a thoroughly entertaining watch, but relies on the strength of the original Hunger Games and the promise of more to come. If we had to recommend either of the films as a stand-alone thenwe would likely chose the first. But then, how could you watch either and make a conscious decision not to hunt down the other immediately?

Make no mistake – we’re already looking forward to The Hunger Games part 3.

 

Words by Charles Conway
Edit by Nick Artsruni

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