Saturday, 22 November 2014

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Upon hitting cinemas, The Hunger Games ushered in what I like to call the ‘Third Wave of Modern YA Adaptations’. The first wave was caused by the early Harry Potter films and created a desire for stories involving destined child heroes in fantasy settings (well, a more immediate desire for them at any rate) with adaptations of The Chronicles Of Narnia and the like. The second wave was caused by the simultaneously over and under-abused punchline that is the Twilight series, creating a want to see romantic stories involving the undead. Such films that fall under this would include Red Riding Hood, The Host and Warm Bodies, along with many other trite bits of fluff. With the third wave, we have a sudden influx of apocalyptic settings, veering more into science-fiction than fantasy, and the ever-growing need to be taken seriously. A lot of overlap exists between these three. In 2014 alone, we’ve had Divergent, The Giver and The Maze Runner as by-products of the Third Wave, not to mention The Hunger Games’ own Mockingjay which has just come out. Before I get to that movie though (and yes, I will be reviewing it soon enough), I figured I should catch up a bit on the series, having only seen the first movie for 2012’s list (It was really good, but mostly because of the second half). As such, today’s film will be The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

The plot: In the wake of Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (played by Josh Hutcherson) winning the previous Hunger Games, murmurs of revolution against President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) are starting to rise, along with Katniss having to go through a chaotic cycle of traumatic memories of the Games and her fabricated relationship with Peeta. In the midst of all this, both Katniss and Peeta have been drafted to once again take part in a special edition of the Hunger Games, where all of the competitors are former Victors of the Games. Katniss and Peeta must work together to make it through the Games alive once again.

Rule Of Sequels #44: If you can’t make it, remake it. Time and time again have we seen film sequels just rehash the original to make a quick buck, and given how the story here also involves repeating what we saw in the first movie, I was immediately skeptical about this doing the same. However, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t the case here. If anything, this seems to have improved on a lot of what made the original work, as well as ironing out some of its problems as well. For one thing, I personally found quite a few of the special effects in the original to be a bit obvious, but I was willing to overlook that at the time because in-story they were supposed to be computer effects. Here, given how much better the fires and wildlife look in comparison (among other things), now I feel like I was a bit too forgiving to the original. Then again, Weta Digital (who, among other films, worked on The Lord Of The Rings, Avatar and the new Planet Of The Apes movies) is listed as one of the companies who helped make the effects for this movie, so I guess it’s to be expected.

I’ve already mentioned how the second half of the original is where it gets really good, but here it’s a lot more consistent. In the first half, we get the usual running commentary on the cult of celebrity that annoyed me slightly before, but here it builds on what has already been established and comes out better for it. We have Katniss having to deal with a lot of events due to her becoming a Victor of the Games: Needing to continue the charade of being in a relationship with Peeta, trying to stay off the President’s kill list given how she has become a source of inspiration for the rebellion, not to mention the PTSD she’s going through as a result of all the death she witnessed in the Games; all of this while she has to keep a happy face in front of the cameras for the public while she’s on her Victory Tour. On top of this, we have a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale… and it’s here where we get one of this movie’s big snags. There are very few things in this world that are able to make a love triangle not being an annoying plot thread that I usually skip over when re-watching movies and TV shows. Unfortunately this isn’t one of them, and given how the love triangle ties into the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, a major plot thread, it is also unavoidable. However, in its defense, this does handle it better than most, as all parties involved are at least aware of the different sides of what’s going on rather than keeping things secret and just making it worse, a la most romantic comedies with this plot line, but all the same. Then in the second half, we get the Game itself which was initially worrying given how similar it looks to the first (Traded in a forest for a jungle? Really?) but between the character interactions, the new mechanics at play, as well as the overall story, it actually comes out stronger than the first’s already high benchmark.

Now, to one of the bigger points for this movie: The performances. This has an immensely impressive cast, with everyone giving a great portrayal of their character: Jennifer Lawrence continues to shine as Katniss, Woody Harrelson is funny and endearing as Katniss’ mentor Haymitch, Donald Sutherland is subdued and intimidating as Snow and Stanley Tucci hits that sweet spot of both annoying and funny as the zany talk show host Caesar. Along with this, we also have some newcomers to the cast: Sam Claflin as Finnick, the cocky but loyal pretty boy; Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, the tech whiz who comes up with some really good ideas to win the Games; Lynn Cohen as Mags, Finnick’s silent mentor; Jena Malone as Johanna, the Valkyrie Bitch who makes for some of the best moments in this film; and the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch, the new Gamemaker replacing Seneca from the original, among others. While they do very well with their roles, the most exceptional thing of note is the fact that the characters who participate in the Games actually have roles. In the original, all we got was Katniss, Peeta, Rue and a group of sociopaths. Here, it feels more like the cast have been fleshed out a bit more and are legitimately fun to watch on screen.

All in all, this is a damn good movie. Even though we are currently in a mild state of Jennifer Lawrence overexposure, given how good the movies she’s in are (including this one), I can only see that as a good thing. This is one of those rare sequels that actually manages to improve on the original, while still holding onto what made it good and not just flat-out copying it to the letter, continuing with its strong acting, writing and story themes of how simple actions can lead to much larger outcomes. This ranks higher than Captain Phillips, purely because I got more enjoyment out of the sci-fi setting here, and but lower than Django Unchained, which as a whole still made for a more fulfilling experience of a film. On the 2013 list, this one ranks among the best of the year. Even if you haven’t seen the original yet, I highly recommend checking them both out. As for the new one… we’ll just have to wait and see.

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