“Catching Fire” Ignites New Life into ‘Hunger Games’ Franchise

As I sit here on this cozy winter night on my couch with wireless keyboard on my lap and Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat beer in hand, let me regale you the tale of what happened last night when I went to see the next installment in The Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire.

Now, as you may have previously read, I rather disliked the first Hunger Games movie. I felt it took a pretty good book, and made it worse. The first novel was imperfect but built on a solid concept, in which a quality film could have built a firm foundation. Yet, it failed utterly. If you wish to read that certain post, I’ll save you the time of digging and quick link you to it. https://pictureperfectbottledrage.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/the-hunger-games-how-and-why-the-book-and-movie-should-have-been-better/

Usually, I’ll provide spoilers with a movie that I review. Not so this time. What I’ve discovered is, that with movies I dislike I need to provide all the reasons why it’s terrible. I need to spoil the movie to you the reader so that you do not waste your money in seeing it. Instead, because I liked this movie, I’ll merely tease you with spoilers, and tell you why you should go see it. A good production is literally worth gold, and I’ll encourage the development of those works of art. A bad project is worth flushing down the toilet, and thus I should discourage the masses from viewing such filth.

Which leads me  to assess the franchise as a whole, starting with the books and first movie. The Hunger Games franchise can be brought to life by this complex analogy. The overlying concept is like Aztec Gold. It’s shiny, valuable, creative, pretty, and intelligently made. Suzanne Collins then puts this concept into a book, and is like Hernan Cortez melting down all the Aztec Gold. It’s still shiny, valuable, and it’s still gold, it simply lost some of its intelligence and attractivity along the way. Then, the first movie comes along. This is like black market traders buying and selling the melted down gold bricks. The original vision (concept) gets a bit lost, and even the nice features of the gold start to get tainted as it switches hands and is used as a means to an end instead of as a work of art.

THANKFULLY, if we stick with the analogy, the second movie is like someone put a curse on all the Aztec Gold (sound familiar, Captain Jack?) and it all had to be brought back to one place to start from scratch in order to end the curse. All the gold is back in the same place with some of it restored, maybe not for the right reasons, but it’s there nonetheless. This is where we pick up with the second movie, if you still follow my analogy.

First and foremost, we switch directors. Which is a godsend. Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) takes the film into an entirely different direction than Gary Ross did. He takes the ideas that the second novel was built on, and creates a film based on them. All the parts of the book that drag on for too long or that the plot gets lost in (such as the overlong Arena setting and overemphasis on the teenage romance) get slimmed down and trimmed to fit in a fast paced movie focused on the characters and the setting, instead of the futuristic mushy love story told by the first movie.

Secondly, we get set and cinematographical (I may have just made that up) redesign. Remember how I said that the setting in the Capitol should reflect Rome? Francis Lawrence hits that nail on the head, keeping the futuristic feel but also paying much homage to ancient Italy. There are nice wide angle shots that capture how Panem should have been imagined by most of the readers. And for those of you that did not read the books, it gives a grander and more epic feel to the entire movie.

Third, it’s more menacing. Certainly the books get darker as the series goes on, but this movie actually feels PG-13 instead of the lighthearted romp that was the first film. The government is clearly defined as the real enemies, and it shows. Unlike the first movie where the villain and even the roles of the Gamemaker and President were totally passed over (even though they weren’t included in the book), it is clear who the antagonists are even if the film tells us “remember who the enemy is”. The peacekeepers uniforms have (thankfully) been redesigned, which although still imperfect reflect a much more totalitarian feel. Patrick St. Esprit (Sons of Anarchy, Green Zone, Super 8) plays the head Peacekeeper in District 12, and does a pretty good job for a guy that I laughed at when presented on screen because of the pushover character he plays in SoA. Instead, he channels Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars more than anything else, which is a remarkably good thing.

Fourth, the casting. Although Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist is still a ridiculous babe, she might only be the fourth best actor in the film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is wonderfully cast as head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, and is beyond a doubt the best actor in the movie. Lenny Kravitz reprises his role as Cinna the stylist, and Jeffery Wright ( Agent Felix Leiter in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) contributes well to the expanded cast, as does Woody Harrelson who comes through yet again as the mentor Haymitch Abernathy. More new cast members arrive (and will stay for the remainder of the sereis) in Finnick Odair (Sam Clarfin, Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides), who plays his role fantastically, as well as the sexy damaged goods that make up Johanna Mason (Jena Malone, Into the Wild). I do still wish that President Snow were replaced by a more diabolical actor, but Donald Sutherland does his best to personify the films villain.

Finally, the soundtrack. I critiqued this in my last review, and it picks up considerably in this installment. Although the composer (James Newton Howard) remains the same, the times where the score is edited into the movie make quite the difference. From soft piano to Chris Martin singing the end credits song, it is a marked improvement.

Besides the obvious upgrades, everything about the movie seems real, as you identify so much better with the characters and setting. The PTSD that the characters experience from the trauma in the games is real. The brutal violence and oppression of the Capitol based regime draws parallels to not just historical fascism, but our own current government as well. The plot, which is more setting and character driven, feels conceivable and believable. We are finally sitting in Panem and buying into the universe that Collins created, even more so than those of us that read the book. This is no longer a strict romance movie (sorry to disappoint all the girls aged 12-20 that flocked to the theater last night), but instead it has turned into a work of art.

Is this movie perfect? Certainly not. The “love triangle” between Katniss Everdeen (J. Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is muddled at best. Katniss’ true thoughts and feelings are never really dissected, and it’s hard to see the motivation for some of the decisions she makes relationally. Gale, like in the books, is a very shallow and undeveloped character, and the adult audience is unsure of the relationship between Gale and Katniss even though the teens and tweens will swoon when the two “lovebirds” appear on screen in romantic moments. The movie also suffers from some poor source material, although the second Collins novel is a good read, it is far from great and has many imperfections and inconsistencies which you’ll notice in the film. Is that the film’s fault? No, but you’ll notice it nonetheless. And finally, it also suffers from a poor prequel. The movie has to constantly be referencing the previous movie, because after all, it’s built right on top of it. Changes in between movies may leave some viewers confused, although rest assured that the changes made from first film to second are more than likely for the best.

The Hunger Games : Catching Fire is a well done movie based on rather good source material. Neither the book or the movie will ever enter the realm of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings series, but the franchise takes a giant step in the right direction with this most recent film. It boldly showcases the bleakness and oppression of the fascist regime in the fictional Panem, and even draws fantastic parallels to the entertainment industry’s hype machine that is responsible for such debacles that are “music television’s” VMA’s. Where this movie is at its best is when Catching Fire draws allegorical comparisons to the culture that created it. I rarely say this about a movie based on a book, but in this case….

The book is good.

But the movie’s way better.

8/10

My Year at the Movies (ranks in order of best to worst of movies I have seen that have been released this year)

1. Rush

2. Star Trek Into Darkness

3. Man of Steel

4. Catching Fire

5. Pacific Rim

6. Despicable Me 2

7. Monsters University

8. The Great Gatsby

9. Oblivion

10. Elysium

11. World War Z

12. Oz the Great and Powerful

13. Fast and Furious 6

14. Iron Man 3

15. Hangover Part 3

16. Thor : The Dark World

17. A Good Day To Die Hard

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