REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

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The 2012 film “The Hunger Games” launched a new movie franchise to the tune of almost $700 million at the box office. It was based on Suzanne Collins’ equally popular book series – one that I had never heard of prior to the film’s announcement. The story is dystopian science fiction and it examines themes such a class disparity, oppression, and the infatuation with reality television. It wasn’t a perfect movie but it stood head and shoulders above other popular film franchises aimed at this age group. With a good cast locked in and the groundwork laid for a fairly interesting premise, the inevitable sequel had a lot of potential and expectations.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” hit theaters with even bigger fanfare than the first film. It raked in over $860 million and received hearty praise from critics. Personally I felt there was room to improve from the first film, but I didn’t expect to find a significantly better movie. I really enjoyed “Catching Fire” and I was impressed at how many trappings it avoided. So often movies of this type and sequels in general make the same mistakes which more often than not lowers the quality of the film. “Catching Fire” does several things better this time around and it starts with the story.

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This film begins shortly after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The two have returned to District 12 where Katniss has convinced her local boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that her “love” for Peeta was just an act to survive the games. She is paid a surprise visit by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who informs her that she and Peeta will be going on a victors tour to the other districts. He also expresses displeasure in her defiant actions during the games which have fueled a rising underground rebellion against his Capitol. He intends to use the tour to influence public opinion but in secret he feels the only way to solve his problem is to kill Katniss.

Woody Harrelson returns as the goodhearted boozer Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks is back as Effie, the queen of gaudy fashion overkill. The two clearly have affections for Katniss and Peeta and they both understand the danger and intensity of their situation. They try to prepare the two victors for the tightrope they must walk between energizing the revolution and bringing the wrath of President Snow to their home district. Director Francis Lawrence does a great job of ratcheting up the tension during this part of the story and the stakes are raised particularly when some of the tour stops to oppressed districts don’t go as planned.

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The story then takes a sharp turn with the out-of-the-blue announcement of the Third Quarter Quell. Basically ever 25 years the Hunger Games are “celebrated” with a special set of rules that normally serves the Capitol’s interests. President Snow decides that the 75th games will consist only of past winners. Since Katniss is the only female to win from District 12 she is automatically put into the games which Snow hopes will take care of his little problem. For me this is where the movie does spin its wheels a little. In what felt like a slight retread from the first film, we go back through the glitzy chariot presentations of the players, their appearances on Stanley Tucci’s whacky talk show, and the showcase of their skills before the bigwigs. It doesn’t play out as long as it did in the first film but I did find myself anxious for things to movie along.

But once the games do start the film gets right back on track. There are a number of interesting twists and angles that come from a variety of different directions. That is what provides the film with its own identity. “Catching Fire” maintains the grand scope and ominous threat of the first film, but it magnifies it and then takes it into its own place. A lot of it has to do with the progression of Collins’ story, but I give a lot of credit to Francis Lawrence’s direction and the screenplay from Simon Beaufoy and Michael duBruyn.

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It also helps that the acting takes a step up. Lawrence is fabulous and I would take this performance over her good but generic work in “American Hustle”. She is the heart and soul of the film and her abilities to sell her character both emotionally and physically are vital. I also think Josh Hutcherson make significant strides. His acting was a weakness in the first film but both he and Liam Hemsworth make obvious improvements. It was also great seeing some new characters played by really talented actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in what is one of his final roles) shows up as Snow’s new Gamemaker. I also really liked Jeffrey Wright as a studious fellow games participant.

I enjoyed the first film of this popular franchise even though I didn’t think it was great. That alone was enough to make me curious about “Catching Fire”. What I didn’t expect was to be completely enthralled in it from start to finish. “Catching Fire” is a big budget franchise entry that manages itself well and pulls off what many are incapable of doing. It not only adds to the groundwork laid by its predecessor, but it improves on it in nearly every area. And perhaps this movie’s biggest trick was to make ME thoroughly interested in what happens next. That of itself was a major accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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38 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

  1. I was impressed with the first episode but even more so with this. The manipulation by President Snow is more obvious and more devious. I was impressed at how well they visualized the games themselves. The other winners were not always well served but you have to make choices when doing a film that you don’t have to make in a book. I have high hopes for the last two films, they can only improve on the book which was the most disappointing of the three. The extra film should solve some of those problems. The Phillip Seymour Hoffman issue is sad to contemplate as well.

    • This thing really surprised me. You sum it up really well. It’s such a well made movie and it shows that big budget films can really be effective. The performances are good and the stakes only get higher as the story progresses. I’m a big fan.

  2. I liked the first one a little bit better, however, I do have to say that this story is beginning to feel a little bit more epic now. Let’s just hope that they can capitalize on it. Good review Keith.

    • I thought the first one was pretty good but I thought it had a few flaws. For me this one definitely tightened things up a bit and the story itself got more riveting as the show progressed. What a surprise.

    • Thanks man. So the first movie didn’t blow you away either? This movie really caught me by surprise. I was curious and I was anxious to see the direction it would go but I never expected to love it.

      • It did not. I thought the first entertaining, but I also thought it pulled too many of its punches and thereby missed a proper sense of disgust and horror, the very sense that makes the series’ allegorical themes resonate so strongly.

      • You’re right. In its defense it was between a rock and a hard place. I think there was a specific audience that it was aiming at and if it went too far in that direction it wouldn’t have been able to get the rating it wanted. It would’ve been interesting to see a version of the film that didn’t pulled punches.

      • That might have been part of it.

        Though I will say the book certainly had the right tone, without ever being gory or inappropriate for a younger audience. I would argue that the second movie did, too. But I don’t know. Did Catching Fire have a higher rating?

      • Nope. Both were PG-13. And I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think the second one did manage that better than the first film. It sounds like the books may be worth checking out too.

      • They are. I think the first book is one of the best novels I have ever read. Period. Ever. I’d put it in my Top 5 novels of all time, probably.

        The second and third go downhill (especially the third), but they aren’t ever bad and are always engaging.

      • Yes, though with a qualifier. Is she or he also a mature 12-year-old capable of digesting, accepting and not being too bothered by some very adult themes?

        Within the series’ linear story, there is little that risks inappropriateness for a pre/young teen, but thematically The Hunger Games is fairly adult. Some 12 year olds are mature enough to understand and empathize with the themes; others less so.

      • You’re right. My son is right in that area you’re speaking of. He’s a heck of a lot more mature than I was at his age. He also has a great sense of discernment. But he is still 12 years old so I may make him wait just a little longer.

        Thanks for the advice.

      • You bet. I first encountered these books when tutoring a young man, who — at the time — must have been 12. He was excited about the books, so his parents gave him the go ahead to read them. And then asked me to help him decode the complicated plot.

        He enjoyed the story a lot, wasn’t given nightmares or anything, and thought Katniss a truly inspiring protagonist. But the allegory sailed over his head. I’m not sure if he has ever reread the books, but during his first reading, he knew what happened in them; but he had no idea, really, what they were actually about.

  3. Great review Keith, and I am pretty much 110% in agreement with ya. This film improved upon everything that worked so well for its predecessor and stepped up the drama bigtime. I absolutely loved it. It fared very well on my Top 10 of ’13 list! It’s great to see you had a good time as well.

    • Thanks Tom! It really caught me by surprise. I never expected to give this movie a 4.5! But it is just so well done and it was an incredibly fast 2 hours and 30 minutes.

      Are you familiar with the book series? I’m not but someone noted that Mockingjay was the weakest of the books.

    • You sound exactly like me! I was very interested but not expecting anything this good. What a treat! Don’t you love it when a movie catches you off guard and is considerably better than you expect?

  4. Great review Keith. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this, definitely a good flick. It is most certainly an improvement on its predecessor, and I had no idea that it would be that good.

    • Me either Zoe. It’s so much more than a niche flick or a mindless blockbuster. It draws you into its complicated world and I now find myself completely invested! I never saw that coming! 🙂

  5. Really glad you liked it mate, I certainly enjoyed it more than the first. I thought it was so much darker than the first one. I mean, sending her into the games when they’re under the impression she’s pregnant? Man, that’s proper dark for a ‘young adult’ film. Great review buddy.

    • Very true! President Sutherland has no shame! It’s really sad that Hoffman’s role will be cut short. He was very good. I wonder how much of the next film he had shot? Maybe all of it since its due in November.

  6. Ah the fire theme continues eh Keith! 😉 I quite enjoyed this one too, even more than the first one and I think it’s because of the political intrigue aspect of it. It’s a bummer that Hoffman is gone as he was my fave character. I heard he has completed most of his scenes for the next film though, but still, it’s very sad that when we see it, we know he’s not around anymore 😦

    Great review Keith!

    • Thanks Ruth! I wasn’t expecting to love this movie. It completely caught be by surprise and I love it when that happens. I thought the first movie was pretty good but this one definitely stepped it up. Have you read the books?

  7. I agree about this one being better than last – I barely got through the first one and I was pretty wasted watching that, so it was really bad if I still thought it was a really dumb movie. This one at least wasn’t boring. I despise Lawrence but I agree she was much better here than blowing up science ovens.

  8. Nice review Keith. I actually preferred the first one out of the two, despite its faults, but still enjoyed both of them so far. I don’t think it’s the best film series I’ve watched (that’s Emmanuelle 1 to 19!) but I reckon I’ll stick with it through the third and fourth parts now.

    • It’s definitely not the best film series but I’m definitely sticking with it now. The first film left me a little indifferent. That’s why I didn’t see the second one in the theater. But I had a lot of fun with this latest one and I hope it carries over to the next.

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