2013| 2 hr 26 minutes | Dir. Francis Lawrence | Lionsgate
Suzanne Collins’ beloved young adult novel about youth battling a dystopian future came to the screen last summer with The Hunger Games. Though the film made millions, it received mixed reviews. One year and $130 million later, Lionsgate releases a Hunger Games that lives up to its source material. Catching Fire makes the first Hunger Games, and most other movies made in the last 10 years, look like sissy flicks.
For those of you who don’t know, The Hunger Games takes place in a Panem, a sort of worst- case- scenario future United States. Panem has twelve districts and one bloodthirsty Capitol. Every year the Capitol hosts a Hunger Games in which two tributes from each district fight to the death to remind all citizens of the Capitol’s power over their lives. The trilogy follows Katniss Everdeen, a poor teen from District Twelve. She wins the hunger games only to find her days of playing the Capitol’s games are far from over.
Lionsgate replaced Gary Ross with director Francis Lawrence. The first Hunger Games looked like Ross shot it with a HandiCam. After last summer’s Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence could still safely say she only made indie movies. Francis Lawrence, whose credits include I Am Legend and Water for Elephants, brings more finesse and control to the production style. Lionsgate has signed him on for parts one and two of next seasons’ Mockingjay.
Lawrence made Catching Fire what the first Hunger Games should have been: a heart- wrenching human drama draped in unforgettable cinematics. The first film’s jarring production style and minimalist costumes added to the film’s mood of panic, but overall it just made for a big headache of a movie. Catching Fire feels more sure of itself, and so do Collins’ characters.
While the first movie focused solely on Katniss, Catching Fire further incorporates her conflicting man- loves Peeta and Gale into the plot. Josh Hutcherson does to audiences what Peeta Mellark does to Panem: he makes us fall in love with him. Beautiful, brooding Liam Hemsworth represents Katniss’ past and a future of rebellion. He becomes Peeta’s foil and represents a side of Katniss she almost fears.
The first movie was not without its virtues, and those virtues excel in the second film. Casting director Debra Zane’s choices from the first film make Catching Fire one of the best- cast films around. Woody Harrelson plays world- weary drunk Haymitch Abernathy as the tragic father figure we’d all love and hate to have. Stanley Tucci, who seems to especially enjoy his fake teeth, flourishes in the role of grinning game show host Cesar Flickerman. Donald Sutherland, whom Rolling Stone described as “evil and loving it”, plays Katniss’ formidable foe President Snow, Panem’s evil overlord and the true enemy of the Hunger Games. Phillip Seymour Hoffman comes to the cast as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new head gamemaker. Hoffman usually plays a slimeball. His casting as Heavensbee represents a stroke of genius. Entertainment Weekly suggests everyone hire Jenna Malone for their next movie. They’re right. The 29- year- old actress who usually plays the timid girl- next door (Pride & Prejudice, Donnie Darko) gets in touch with her inner badass to portray Joanna Mason, the visibly furious female tribute from District 7.
Costume designer Trish Summervile should get the Oscar for costuming handed to her on a bejeweled cushion. While the first films’ makeup department struggled to draw viewer’s eyes away from the paltry wardrobe, Catching Fire has the budget and the imagination to truly blow our minds. The costumes in the Capitol surpass expectations: they look opulent, lavish, extravagant, and completely out of this world. Elizabeth Banks’ Alexander McQueen butterfly dress steals the show. Katniss’ wedding gown, designed by Indonesian designer Tex Savario, looks like the fluffy fairy tale gowns of our dreams. And finally, the folks in District 12 look more like they’re living in the future and not the 1930’s.
The sweeping score James Newton Howard composed for the first Hunger Games proves every bit as effective in the sequel. The Capitol Anthem and Cesar Flickerman’s tooting game show theme are especially memorable. Listen to it when you’re feeling epic.
But a good movie means more than the sum of its parts. A good story needs heart and a compelling plot. The Hunger Games has a completely disgusting premise. Two children from twelve districts are plucked from their homes and forced to fight to the death in an arena specially designed to make their lives miserable. The point of this spectacle is not only to entertain the sick narcissists who live in the Capitol, but to remind the Districts of the Capitol’s crushing power and control over their lives.
In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta find themselves in the arena for the second time. The Capitol sees Katniss as a threat. Her braid and mockingjay pin have become symbols of rebellion. Her presence ignites uprisings in the Districts during her Victory Tour. To exterminate Katniss, the Capitol decrees that the 75th Hunger Games and third Quarter Quell, which usually involves a disturbing twist, will see two tributes chosen from the existing pool of winners. As the only living female tribute from District 12, Katniss wins the lottery.
Catching Fire is even more relentlessly depressing than the first Hunger Games. Everyone we love dies or suffers horribly. The Capitol barrages Katniss and Peeta with so many unbearable abominations it seems unreal. Gale gets whipped within an inch of his life. Anyone who shows support for Katniss in the Districts gets the ax. Everyone in District 12 starves while citizens of the Capitol induce vomiting in order to stuff themselves with more food. President Snow forces Katniss and Peeta to play along with every unfair decree forced down their throats until finally, neither of them can take any more.
At the heart of The Hunger Games lies Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence deserves every drop of praise she gets for this role. Any book with a first person narrative needs a strong lead. We see everything through Katniss’ eyes and tears, and Lawrence makes the film a completely immersive experience.
Readers adored Collins’ novel, but the movie is better. A secret subtly hinted at in the novel becomes the movie’s greatest plot twist. Katniss’ attitude towards the Games makes the film more dramatic. At first, she sees cooperation as the only way to save her family and restore peace. In the films’ final moments, she realizes peace is no longer an option. The exhilaration we feel watching and feeling Katniss’ every emotion propels the movie past the lavish costumes, thrilling score, and breathtaking cinematography to put it on the top teir of filmmaking.
Catching Fire will set your world on fire.