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Movie Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13

“What the shit?  They made a Battle Royale for kids?  I give up”   I believe that right there, was my exact quote after seeing the trailer for The Hunger Games.  But despite my obvious disdain, I went and saw the movie and walked away…ambivalent.  It was better than I thought it was going to be, but yet still wasn’t impressed.    A month later, during a trip to Seattle, I really wanted to go see a movie at the Cinerama (and if you live in Seattle, then you know how awesome that place is).  Guess what was playing?  That’s right, The Hunger Games.  Knowing that my options could be a lot worse and my desire to see a movie at the Cinerama greatly outweighing my ambivalence, I saw it for a second time…and was totally won over!  Yep, that second viewing showed me things that I just wasn’t paying attention to the first time, things that I came to really appreciate, thus turning my ambivalence to admiration.  Fast forward to today, after having read the books, seeing the trailers and I’ll admit it, eagerly looking forward to Catching Fire, does that admiration hold up?  Yes it does.

Catching Fire improves upon The Hunger Games.  It wipes away any of the silliness that at times plagued the first movie (with most of that silliness coming from both Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta).   And the movie, being the all important set up man for the closer that will be Mockingjay, avoids The Matrix Reloaded award for most awkward way to end your set up movie.  I was a little skeptical at first at director Francis Lawrence’s ability to make a movie that would end up being better than its predecessor, but he does so in the most subtle of ways.  That’s no easy feat mind you, as the thinking most of times is to go bigger and more spectacular with your sequels (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious).  Not here, Catching Fire is like The Empire Strikes Back, letting the reveals do the talking. If you read the book though, those reveals won’t be as cool, but Lawrence still makes good use of creating the element of surprise.

Catching Fire takes place after the events of The Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is back home in District 12, about to go on her Victory Tour with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  But her plans quickly become complicated when a visit by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) ends with the not so subtle threat that her family and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) will suffer consequences if she doesn’t convince the other districts that her act of defiance at the games was in fact, really for love.  But with Katniss not one for playing by the rules and the districts feeling that they can create an uprising against the Capitol only grows.  With the help of a new game maker, Plutarch Heavansbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), make the new Hunger Games competition one that will feature all the former winners.  The hope being that the districts will see that Katniss is not one of them, but someone loyal to the Capitol.  But it’s during the games that Katniss and Peeta will find unlikely allies, unexpected obstacles and reveal or two along the way. 

What impressed me the most with Catching Fire was Lawrence’s ability to create moments of tension, even for the people who have already read the book.   The bad thing about adaptations is when you’re privy to the source material; you already know the outcome, there by eliminating that tension.  But there are moments in Catching Fire where I felt like Lawrence and crew were going to throw you a curve ball (luckily they didn’t, as that might have been disastrous).  But playing that slight of hand made the movie a better experience.   The emotional part of the story is also improved upon from the first movie.  Most the credit for that goes to Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Hoffman and Sutherland. Francis Lawrence gets credit for Peeta not being such a pussy and for Hemsworth not being so stilted. 

The only knock I have against Catching Fire is the screenwriters choice of how to make a screenplay out of the book.  To me, the games, in the book, weren’t the focal point, it was the story of the districts unrest and Katniss dilemma with keeping her family safe but yet not cow towing to the Capitol.  The movie, even at being 2 ½ hours, seems to want to rush to the games (and the training for such).  There were some effective dramatic elements left out of the movie that might have made an already great movie that much better.  But it is what it is, the movie is still really effective, something that 90% of the YA adaptations can’t even come close to achieving.  My hats off to you Catching Fire, you not only improved on the first movie, you made waiting for Mockingjay two parter that more exciting.  Who knew I would ever get to this point?

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