Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Like I said during my review of The Hunger Games last year, this wasn't my most anticipated film. In fact, while I was certainly excited for it, I doubt it was even in my top 5 movies that I was looking forward to when 2013 began. I ended up being a huge fan of the original movie and even included it in my top 10 favorite films of 2012. Having said that, I knew there was room to improve from the first film, and the trailers I saw in the months leading up to Catching Fire's release were early hints of those improvements. My only reservation was the somewhat unsatisfying arc in the novel, though it did set the dominos in place for a great (albeit controversial) finale in Mockingjay. I therefore went into this film with moderate expectations, even thinking that the highlight of the night might be the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation Smaug. Now I'm left wondering if that film can even compete with this one.

Katniss Everdeen emerged from the Hunger Games a victor, but is haunted by the traumatic events from the arena as she tries to live a normal life. As she returns from hunting, however, she is surprised to receive a visit from the President of Panem, Coriolanus Snow. While snidely congratulating her on her victory, Snow also warns her that the defiance displayed at the conclusion of the 74th Hunger Games has led to civil unrest and threats of an uprising in many of the districts. Snow wishes her to convince the districts of her loyalty to Peeta as well as to the Capital as she visits Panem for the obligatory victory tour. However, seeing the grieving families of those who died in the arena (particularly Rue), Katniss offers words of condolences that result in a public execution. As President Snow begins to see the victory tour's inability to placate the riotous districts, he concocts another scenario with new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee to eliminate the trouble-making victor - the 75th Hunger Games (or Quarter Quell), which will choose its tributes from the existing pool of victors from each district, giving Katniss no hope of escaping the arena.

For those of you who haven't read the book, I'll refrain from spoiling anything else about the plot. The movie does remain surprisingly faithful to the novel, and the script (written by Academy Award-winning Simon Beaufoy from Slumdog Millionaire and Academy Award-winning Michael Arndt from Little Miss Sunshine) does a wonderful job of fleshing out the thematic richness from the books while setting up the tension of not just the immediate danger, but of the revolution yet to come. It's a terrific screenplay, and everything moves so organically that the two and a half hour screentime flies by.

Though I was a champion of the first film, everything in Catching Fire is an improvement over its predecessor. For one thing, it clearly has a much larger budget (by about $50 million or so), which is evident in every frame. It's so great to see a film franchise that rewards its audience by investing in a sequel rather than penny-pinching and cashing in on unrequited loyalty by series devotees (ahem, Twilight). Also, the tension and the stakes in this film have escalated. It's no longer a simple story of survival, but its themes encompass a broader scope of consequences for the actions of each character. Though Katniss and company are thrust into the arena once again, the tagline "remember who the real enemy is" makes their struggles even more captivating. It's an emotional roller-coaster, eloquently portraying the dire circumstances of each character while making us feel the complexity of what they're experiencing.

This film is also incredibly intense, even before the actual Hunger Games are underway. The fact that the filmmakers can create such a tense experience for an audience who already know what will happen is a true testament to the mastery at work when crafting this film. New director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) keeps continuity with the vision of Gary Ross from the first film, but he also expands on it and improves not just the weak aspects but the strong aspects of The Hunger Games. It's an impressive feat, and thankfully Lawrence will return to direct the final two films in the series as well.

Returning to this film are all of the previous cast members, and none are more impressive than Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Fresh off her Oscar victory for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence brings her A-game to Catching Fire, surpassing her previous performance and the audience's expectations by expertly bringing Katniss to life. The supporting cast are uniformly terrific, with newcomers like Phillip Seymour Hoffman elevating the material with their commanding presence. Of all the characters in this film, the one I was most worried about was Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin. His previous performances (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Snow White & The Huntsman) were the worst things about each of those films. I distinctly remember groaning in agony when I initially heard of this casting, and I went into the theater honestly just hoping that it wouldn't ruin the film for me. Surprisingly, Claflin completely won me over from the moment he shows up on screen offering Katniss a sugar cube. He's a great choice for Finnick, both in selling the physicality as well as the charm of the character and I can't wait to see him in future installments.

It's a pretty frightening experience in the arena this time, as each of the participants are accomplished killers, let alone the tsunamis and poisonous gas threatening the tributes at every turn. But perhaps the most effective and terrifying scene of all comes in the form of a familiar voice shrieking in agony, mysteriously coming from deep within the jungle. The resultant chaos that ensues is spine-tingling and the better sound system you see the movie in the better it will be.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed by this film. It surpasses expectations, deepens thematic resonance and heightens anticipation for the subsequent finales. This is a tremendous adaptation of Suzanne Collins's thought-provoking novel and it's a near-perfect sequel to last year's blockbuster phenomenon. Catching Fire is one of the best films of the year, and I give it a strong four stars.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language