01/12/2013

The Hunger Games Catching Fire



If The Hunger Games tried to divert us from the darker undercurrents of Suzanne Collins’s story then Catching Fire wants to draw our attention to them. This is the big difference between the two films, perhaps in part due to a change in director and also because the story is becoming larger after the unexpected results of the Games. While clearly still a big budget tent pole movie, Catching Fire plays with some of the toys of mature film making while Jennifer Laurence brings her Oscar winning gravity to bear on key occasions. It’s not often that the second film in a series is better than the first but Catching Fire manages to surpass the first Hunger Games film in every area.


Having been through so much to win the 74th Games, Katniss and Peeta are hauled off on a victory tour on which she initially dispenses with scripted cards and inadvertently causes a riot. As the train bolts around the Districts we catch glimpses of slogans and symbols and she soon realises that the seeds of revolution have been sewn in the hope the couple’s defiance created and that her compliance with the authorities will not necessarily stop . Early on President Snow lays his cards on the table in a magnetic scene where he and Katniss speak truthfully to each other, a formal civility barely hiding mutual contempt.
It is this difference between outward appearances and hidden truth that the first half of the film captures so well. In the face of an increasingly brutal public order crackdown. Katniss finds it difficult to come to terms with what she has inspired- yet she is equally awkward at playing along with the regime’s wishes. As Snow announces a `Quarter Quell`, a sort of champions Hunger Games in which all the contestants are chosen from past winners, we re-visit some of the protocol from the first film but the tone is different. Allegiances and trust are the watchwords. Even the pre Games television show is full of tension. All the time too, as they train in gilded safety, we see the slate grey districts being turned over by soldiers of what little possessions the people have. This contrasts with the opulence of the pre-Games ritual complete with a giant new stadium. It’s hard not to see parallels with the current concerns over the money being spent on forthcoming Olympics and World Cups compared to the needs of poorer people in the host nations.
It’s not surprising in this climate that the 75th Games are more brutal and manipulative than ever. One criticism of the first film was that we spend a bit too long in the Games and it becomes rather repetitive. This time round the sequence is shorter, sharper and the dangers are more fluid. There’s a lethal poisonous fog that curls towards victims with frightening stealth, fearsome looking monkeys that attack in a huge hoard, extreme weather and even more ruthless enemies. Poor Peeta is once again the recipient of much of the nasty stuff though everyone is soon looking worn out. 
"Do you think they're taking the title of this film a bit too literally?"

One of the best aspects of the film is how the characters do not disappear under the barrage of threats and effects. Jennifer Lawrence is amazing throughout managing to convey Katniss’s conflicting emotions and priorities with conviction. Katniss is no super cool unbelievable protagonist but full of doubt, rage and prone to errors. Yet when she steels herself she can become that warrior hero the populace seems to be expecting. Peeta is the less showy role but Josh Hutcherson has found a way to make it work whether showing the character’s more subversively sly attempts to play along or expressing his feelings for Katniss. Their relationship is complex and sometimes seems to make no sense until you realise there’s no reason why it should. Once again Woody Harrelson is fun as the pithy and rarely sober Haymitch. There is less time spent with the other tributes this year though both Jenna Malone (Johanna) and Sam Clafin (Finnick) make a strong impression; right to the end you’re not quite sure whether they are to be trusted. On the other side, Donald Sutherland gets more screen time as President Snow and manages to convey menace with a casual air while  Philip Seymour Hoffman as new Games controller Plutarch Heavensbee plays it poker faced and steely eyed.
Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems frame the contrasts perfectly. The action is superbly rendered and remains exciting all the way through; you don’t even get time to ponder just how much longer we’ll be in the jungle. Stand out scenes include the fog creeping ever closer, the startling monkey attack and the disorder breaking out after Katniss diverts from what she is supposed to say.
As a tale of festering rebellion and the mind set of those on either side, Catching Fire far out-runs what we might reasonably expect from a big film based on a young adults’ book. It lives up to its name on every level coaxing and pushing at the idea of dissent and hope in convincing fashion. The result is a thrilling, clever film that successfully straddles that difficult barrier between popular entertainment and thought provoking drama.



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