In 1981, Sam Raimi released his first feature film, The Evil Dead. Six short years later, Raimi had a relatively larger budget and started working on a sequel. Though, he wanted to perfect the original movie and make it more crowd-pleasing. In turn, he made Evil Dead 2, which basically rewrote the Evil Dead story and added what happens after Ash supposedly survives the night.
Why am I talking about The Evil Dead in a Hunger Games movie review? Essentially, the Catching Fire book/movie is limited in terms of originality. It’s basically a souped-up version of the first book/movie. Once again, Katniss is seen in a struggling District 12 and again she has to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. Though, as we saw in Evil Dead 2, sometimes revisiting a story is an improvement.
In Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are living in luxurious mansions in their home districts after becoming the champions of the 74th Hunger Games. However, Katniss still acts as if nothing has changed. She still hunts and leads Gale along (Gale’s a guy, BTW). President Snow has a personal vendetta against Katniss, who he sees as a threat to the stability of the Capitol. Several of the nation’s districts are resisting against the government and using Katniss as a symbol for hope and defiance. Her role in the resistance becomes much clearer as she and Peeta go on a celebratory tour of each district. As President Snow attempts to think of ways to crush the rebellion, the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (yes, that’s his real name), plans to put Katniss into the arena again against former victors.
This movie won’t win many points when it comes to originality. However, as of now, it is the strongest book-to-movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ work. The first Hunger Games introduced great concepts (originally seen in the movie Battle Royale), yet the movie felt like it was made by a bunch of meth-heads with GoPro cameras. It did a decent job of telling the story of Katniss, but you should expect more than decent in that type of story. Catching Fire has raised the stakes in terms of talent for everyone involved in the production.
The first noticeable improvement comes with the new director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer). While he may not have the best resume, having directed I am Legend, Constantine and Water for Elephants; he was the perfect choice to take this series where it needs to go. The director of the first Hunger Games, Gary Ross, muddied the entire experience and managed to take all the emotion out of it. It’s possible that Lawrence saw every mistake the first movie made and took that advantage by improving it. But that’s just it. He improved the series and gave the viewers a better picture of Panem.
Catching Fire is a memorable and emotional experience. There is a moment, while on the champions’ tour, when Katniss and Peeta have to give speeches to the district that Rue is from. It somehow ends providing far more emotional impact than when (spoiler alert) Rue dies in the first movie. Much of the intensity comes from the score. Nearly every scene will beg for your attention as Katniss struggles with how she is meant to be perceived in the eyes of the Capitol. I was actually a little bummed when the tributes entered the second arena because I worried the movie may turn off it’s brain.
Thankfully the arena is a far better experience this time around. There are no more fake CG dogs, killer bees or shaky cam this time around. Just when you get sick of the non-chemistry of Katniss and Peeta; the suave playboy, Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and feisty Johanna (Jena Malone) elevate the movie. Claflin and Malone are perfectly cast.
The character of Plutarch is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. I found it odd that everyone in the Capitol was adorned in face paint and extravagant decorations, yet Plutarch was just some dude. I wouldn’t be surprised if he walked off another movie set and asked if he could be in the movie, but his stipulation was that he didn’t have to dress up for it.
It should be said that there is little joy in Hunger Games: Catching Fire. We are talking about a small resistance fighting against a dystopian regime. So happiness need not apply. The only levity is provided by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). He gets more time to chew up the scenery and you appreciate every second of it.
Without completely making the comparison, you will notice that Catching Fire is the Empire Strikes Back of this series. It ends on an uncertain downer. It is taking a risk on younger audiences. It’s far more skewed to older crowds this time around. A problem with the movie is that people who haven’t seen the first may be a little lost. This is a transitional movie that doesn’t rely on introducing characters again.
Having read the books, I would rate Hunger Games being the best, Catching Fire dropping in quality only slightly and Mockingjay being the absolute worst. But it appears that the movies may make an opposite trajectory with Catching Fire being far more impressive than the 2012 movie. I’m crossing my fingers that somehow the two Mockingjay movies are salvaged. Francis Lawrence is signed on to direct the two parts of the conclusion, so I have hope.
Consider my nay-saying of the series now silenced. Catching Fire is a step up for the franchise and I dare say it’s the best young adult adaptation since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is worth seeing.