The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
dir. Francis Lawrence
Release Date: Nov 22, 13
When Francis Lawrence was announced as the director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, fans of the novel and the budding film series took pause.The first Hunger Games film, helmed by Pleasantville’s Gary Ross, had its issues.Was the director of Constantine and I Am Legend really the man to fix them? If Catching Fire is any indication, sometimes it takes a hack to do a director’s job. Catching Fire is the movie this series was born to be: cold and brutally efficient, with an unflinching look at the costs of violence and a totalitarian society that in too many ways parallels our own. The series’ second installment isn’t just an upgrade from the previous effort. It’s a staggering improvement at every level, a bold step forward for a series that is only half over.
Part of this can be attributed to Lawrence, whose visual stamp makes a huge difference. The music video vet has always been a visceral director whose saving grace is a meticulous attention to visual detail. Water for Elephants was a sumptuous feast for the eyes, if not the mind; Francis Lawrence knows how to build a world, and this is the first time Panem has looked cohesive, as if all of its actors were appearing in the same film. Ross’ Hunger Games looked like two divided efforts: half Winter’s Bone and half The Fifth Element. Lawrence had a much bigger budget this time around, and you see every dollar on screen, from the improved costume design to Jo Willems’ Fincher-lite cinematography and a Hunger Games competition that earns its suspense.
Lawrence has never been this good at working with actors before, and the performances in Catching Fire feel universally assured and confident. Stanley Tucci’s Caesar continues to be a sycophantic delight, like a mad scientist Karl Lagerfeld, and even Liam Hemsworth’s Gale makes an impression this time around. However, it’s Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Banks that show just how far this series has come in such a short time. In the previous installment, Banks’ Effie Trinket was a sideshow caricature, more of a curiosity than a character. Banks might as well have been hosting Effie’s Drag Race. However, screenwriters Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy wisely pull back the curtain on her facade, giving her more depth and layering than even in the novel. She becomes this series’ secret heart.
Catching Fire gives Katniss Everdeen more characters to play off, by (minor SPOILER, if the trailer didn’t give it away for you) putting the character back in the area with some new competition. To have Katniss killed off, President Snow declares a Quarter Quell. This is like Panem’s version of Survivor: All Stars, in which previous victors must face off against each other, despite having been promised they would never have to go back. It feels like a rehash of the original, but Beaufoy and Arndt imbue the battle with grave melancholy, as these people are sent off to die. The expanding cast brings out the best in Lawrence, who shines as part of a strong ensemble. Although she’s a great brooder, Jennifer Lawrence is a reactive actress, and Catching Fire shines brightest when you can see Lawrence’s Katniss taking in her surroundings and adapting to new threats. As she battles PTSD to fight for survival, you watch as she begins to understand that there is no winning the Hunger Games. The odds are never in your favor.
The film’s only major drawback is structural. Catching Fire feels like a set-up movie, a classic middle chapter gearing us up for the big fireworks show of third-act revolution. That might make the film feel like glorified foreplay to some, a rubdown that never gets to the act itself, and the final shot seems to end mid-thought. Catching Fire overflows with political commentary and sociocultural nuance, yet it still feels somehow abridged at its epic length, like there are still things left unsaid. Perhaps this is then the best possible praise for the series- newest installment, the rare two and a half hour movie that leaves you wanting even more.