The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) Review

catching fireI have to admit, I’ve not read any of  Suzanne Collins’ ‘Hunger Games’ novels. I meant to get around to it before I went to see the films but I ended up catching “The Hunger Games” on DVD at home before I’d opened one of the books.

From the first film, I couldn’t really see what the fuss was about. Not since Pixar’s “Cars” had I encountered a fictional world which sat so uncomfortably with me. I just couldn’t wrap my head around a society where people would blithely accept that every year, the state executed twenty four children for entertainment. I’m guessing it’s explained in more detail and more satisfyingly in the novels but in Gary Ross’ film, it never really gels and undermines everything that follows. The extravagant costumes and curiously named denizens of the capitol seemed hollow and gimmicky while the actual Hunger Games themselves were a huge let down with little sense of danger or tension as our reputed Heroine Katniss Everdeen spent most of the time hiding up a tree or in a cave. After such a lacklustre opening chapter, I was ready to give up on the whole ‘Hunger Games’ franchise, having learned my lesson after watching every loathsome, bizarre minute of the “Twilight” movies trying to fathom the secret of their popularity.

Luckily, a friend pointed out to me that if “The Hunger Games” was set 500 years in the past rather than decades in the future, the idea of annual sacrifices wouldn’t seem so far-fetched. With that thought bouncing around in my head, I decided, with a slight sense of trepidation, to give “The Hunger Games” series one more chance.

I am so, so glad that I did. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is superior to its predecessor in almost every way. Director Francis Lawrence has done for “The Hunger Games” what Alfonso Cuarson did for Harry Potter and he’s done it without the major visual overhaul that Cuaron gave Hogwarts in “The Prisoner Of Azkaban”.

Suddenly, the world of Panem feels more textured and real. Although the world-building done in the first film was cursory at best and relied on the audience just accepting things as presented, “Catching Fire” does a much better job of fleshing out and adding layers of detail to the world of Panem. The sepulchral air of the District 12 Victor’s Village underlines the veneer of civility which masks the Capitol’s oppression, as do the glimpses of the other districts during the Victor’s Tour. Even the Capital Train is shown in greater detail, underlining the disparity between rich and poor.

The 3rd Quarter-Quell, a kind of ‘Now That’s What I Call Hunger Games’,  is spectacular and much more impressive than the first arena. Although it lifts a few beats from “Oz The Great And Powerful” (mists and monkeys anyone?) the action is intense, visceral and occasionally shocking.

With the production values, script and direction vastly improved from the first film, the cast raise their game to match. In the first film, Jennifer Lawrence seemed to me to be half asleep but in “Catching Fire” she feels fully committed to the role and brings an intensity and quietly growing fury that hardens her Katniss Everdeen to the point where you can actually believe she would not only win one Hunger Games but would have a shot at winning a second. Josh Hutcherson, likewise, is given much more to do as Peeta this time round, and even gets his hands dirty rather than relying on Katniss to do the killing. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are also much improved, with the latter really bringing home the desperation of Effie Trinket to maintain her fluttery, prim façade as the ugliness and injustice all around her becomes too much to ignore. Donald Sutherland, as the mendacious and Machiavellian President Snow is superb here, and his interactions with Jennifer Lawrence crackle with intensity. Amongst all the pomp and pageantry of the Capitol, Philip Seymour Hoffman is somewhat conspicuous, looking like he agreed to take the role on the condition he could wear his own clothes, but plays the scheming Head Gamemaker well as he manoeuvres the games to deliver the outcome President Snow desires.

One advantage of not having read the books, of course, is that I’m able to enjoy the plot twists and reveals without foreknowledge, so by the time the film ends on the cliff-hanger it does, I was hooked.  I may have been a reluctant ticket buyer for “Catching Fire”, but you can bet I won’t wait as long to see “Mockingjay Part 1” when it comes out.