I was not overly fond of the first Hunger Games movie, but I didn’t dislike it. I thought it was a good idea (like it was the first time they made it, when it was called Battle Royale) and had some good acting, but it was let down by an obvious low budget. And this characteristic lack of enthusiasm was exacerbated by trailers that didn’t seem to be advertising to anyone but people who were already fans of the books. So perhaps it was merely lowered expectations but I was unprepared for how agreeable I found Catching Fire to be.
The plot is…basically a more in depth retread of the first movie. As the story opens, Katniss and Peeta (names haven’t gotten any less stupid, but we can roll with it) are basking in the glow of having been dual winners of the last Hunger Games, via pretending to be a couple. This is complicated however by Peeta’s actual feelings and the fact that their stage managed post-victory tour has them in the spotlight a lot. But when Katniss starts becoming the symbol of a brewing revolution, the new games master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) decides that the best way to remove her is to make the next games be a big free for all between previous victors, with the plan for Katniss to die fighting.
The main improvement over this film is in the pre-games part of the movie. The social satire is still on the clumsy side, but it’s a lot more naturally weaved into the story in this one, mostly because the stage show/media side of things is front and center, rather than a side thing. The rebellion stuff is mostly well handled, although obviously hampered by the PG-13 rating and sequences involving Katniss’ PTSD from the first Games and gradual push towards playing along are sparse, but well done.
The acting is mostly good across the board. Hoffman is good in a downplayed and restrained performance and it’s nice to see Sutherland looking more engaged and awake than he did last time. Jennifer Lawrence is throwing herself into her role with the same gusto she usually does and it’s nice to see a little more range from Josh Hutcherson than we did last time. Series MVP is still Woody Harrelson to me, and it’s quite frankly criminal that they lost the opportunity to have him be involved in the games, at least in my opinion.
The games themselves are up and down. See, with the cast of fighters being more ‘seasoned veterans/colorful murders’ than frightened high school kids this time around, I was hoping the action would skew more Running Man than Battle Royale. Unfortunately, while the few action sequences we do get are well put together and engaging, most of the more colorful psychos are killed off off-screen. Between the girl who files her teeth into fangs, the drug addicted goths who hide and the married couple who use science to kill people, you’ve got enough to populate the boss fights of a Metal Gear Solid game. You honestly expect me to believe that you can’t get a couple good fights out of that.
Still, review the movie you’ve got, not the movie you want. The action sequences we get are sparse, but well put together. Most of them involve the group running away from or fighting a hazard inside the arena, but they’re still pretty good. Francis Lawrence is definitely a better director of action sequences than Gary Ross (even if Ross has done generally better movies) and more importantly he owns a tripod. The production values and dramatic involvement have definitely improved as well, so I actually care what happens to most of the secondary characters and the monsters in question don’t look terrible this time around.
There are still flaws, even with the improvements. It suffers a bit from being the middle child, so there’s no real beginning and no real end, and it’s clearly just marking time for the big finale. And while the movie clearly has very little interest in the love triangle, it keeps pushing it and Liam Hemsworth doesn’t get enough screen time for me to care about what happens to him.
I didn’t expect a lot from Catching Fire. Maybe it was the crappy marketing, maybe it was how mediocre the first one was, maybe it was just that the blockbusters this year have been on the weak side. But there’s a lot to like about Catching Fire, even if you’re not a huge fan of the books. So if you need an action movie to see, and you’ve already seen Thor, this would probably suffice.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he kept expecting The Fear to show up as one of the fighters.