The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Francis Lawrence
Starring: 
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland
The Setup: 
Revolution grows closer for our intrepid heroes.
Discussion: 

So I read the first book, then saw the movie, and was surprised at how both soft-pedal the dystopic elements and play down the social criticism and political implications, which I could't figure out was a flaw--as it neuters what both had to say--or brilliant--because it then reaches a larger audience who can then think about it all on their own. Then I read the book for this one, which, while the first one was quite readable, was an obsessive page-turner. There were times in the second novel where I was downright shocked by the hot-wire social criticism she was making [and apparently the third book is flat-out insane]. That second book became this movie, which is superior in every way to the previous one, except marred by a downright dud of an ending, complexly flubbed [or too exactly faithful] from the book. But we'll get to that.

The movie begins in a quiet tone with Katniss out hunting, and having romantic wah-wah with Gale, her beau-hunk from home, third of a love triangle between her and Peeta, her fellow contestant in the first games, whom she developed a for-show [or IS it?] romance for the benefit of viewers at home. She's also having panic attacks. We soon re-meet our familiar faces from the first film [the movie assumes complete familiarity with the first], and see that Katniss has attracted the attention of Donald Sutherland as President Snow, super-uber bad guy, in charge of the totalitarian regime they exist in. He tells her that she's become a symbol of revolution, and she'd better cut it out right quick, and the easiest way to do that is really convince everyone of her romance with Peeta. If she doesn't, her family dies.

She and Peeta are to be trotted out on a victory tour, and hopes skyrocketed for the film during a scene in which they go outside to be filmed for television, both dwarfed in the frame by these giant robotic cameras. It gives a great visual sense of how they're pawns in this huge game, and also displays the surreality and inhuman coldness of the world they're facing. Ultimately, it's the best moment in the entire film. But the movie continues going great for a while [while also fulfilling the old two-thirds rule, i.e. only the first two-thirds of sci-fi movies are interesting] as we see Katniss as Peeta made into unwilling celebrities, forced to smile and model clothes and perform pantomimes as they gradually realize that they'll have to maintain this facade for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, the public is growing restless and becoming more and more uppity and rebellious, which annoys Snow. He brings in Philip Seymour Hoffmann as a new games designer, who promises to make Katniss die, but only after they have destroyed her potency as a symbol. So in here we have a lot of good social criticism, but we also have hammer-to-head lines such as "fear does not work as long as they have hope."

After another Katniss-standing-up-to-tyranny scene gets inadvertently broadcast [these alternate with Katniss-horrified-as-a-friend-gets-beaten scenes], they decide to have a special hunger games, in which all of the past winners will fight each other. The movie continues going along well as the past winners are brought out and are clearly not at all on board with the program--especially as their previous victory supposedly ensured their safety. More blah blah, and eventually it's time for the games. There is a bit of the "we have to blow up the Death Star... again" to the proceedings, but the ante is upped enough that it's not that bad.

SPOILERS > > >
So they go into the games, which are a bit more intense this round. Again, the truly villainous remain undeveloped bogeys who appear out of nowhere, while everyone developed is pretty much a good guy. But at least we have some more development of combatants this round, and some of the tortures of the games are truly nasty and seem dangerous in a way they weren't first time. Although one has to observe that we can't allow our lovely characters to have nasty blisters for very long. And so it goes.

Now, I am about to tell you the ending, which, in my professional opinion, will not really spoil much of the pleasure of the movie, but WILL tell you the ending, so you may choose to read it or skip out of the spoilers as suits your taste and general discernment.

Okay, there are a few ways to handle a middle chapter, and the way this book handles it is: the combatants break out of the arena, only to discover that the revolution has started while they were inside, and Katniss is spirited away by the rebels and the whole shit is ON. This has a brilliant effect in the book, as the excitement level EXPLODES, the implications are BOILING YOUR BRAIN, and then, out. And I was looking forward to that effect in the film, but either they flub it so badly [to the point it is actually difficult to discern what is happening], or they have deliberately tamped it down for some reason that is obscure to me but surely involves ensuring admissions for the next two installments.

So here, Katniss shoots an arrow that directs lightning to the force-field dome covering the arena, causing it to collapse. This is where things take an abrupt turn for the shitty, as we get a close-up of the hole in the dome, but no establishing shot of the whole mess, making it look as though the hole is ten feet above Katniss, and she is about to be crushed by falling debris. Then a spaceship comes in and she is picked up with a claw, and we get one of those long slo-mo ascents above the ground, cliche, pretty much, and you haven't even realized yet that THIS is the climax of your movie. Katniss is then TOLD that the revolution has started, and TOLD that her district has been destroyed [and by implication, Mom and little Sis are charred roast], and guys, umm--I am pretty sure that film is a visual medium. So things that would be thrilling if we SAW them are not quite the same when we are TOLD about them [and being TOLD in a book has a far different effect than being TOLD in a movie]. And remember the old adage, "Show, don't tell?" Anyway, we hear a lot of abstract stuff about things happening offscreen, get a shot that Katniss is like, frickin' PISSED, and the screen goes to the LOGO, and you're like "This cannot be IT," and the LOGO transforms into the logo from the next exciting installment, while you're like "Wait a minute, that was IT for the ending?" And yeah, that's it, folks. So not only does the film have a ending that's shitty on a narrative level, it also makes you feel like a chump for being taken in and demeans the entire thing as just a set-up for parts three and four. Thanks for your cash, please make way for the next customers.
< < < SPOILERS END

I don't know why films scuttle themselves with endings like this--it's like, last impressions count, for a LOT. The other recent film to shoot itself in the foot with a shit-a-riffic ending was Dallas Buyer's Club, although that film had a bunch of other issues. Anyway, this one is in all respects better than its first installment, and the first two-thirds are good enough to make you think you are in the hands of a filmmaker who has some sense of expressing theme through purely visual means. But gradually it all goes a bit loose, and then you have that ending, which alone takes 35% off the total score. Ultimately, what could have been a quite good film in its own right is rendered as a mediocre installment, a placeholder til the next one. Pre-order now.

Should you watch it: 

It has qualities and is entertaining, and is better than the first, but that ending erases a lot of goodwill.