“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” sets the bar for dystopian fiction hitting movie screens worldwide this year with a teaser trailer for “Divergent,” the latest trend of the genre, playing on the screen just before the quiet, subtle beginning of the second installment of Suzanne Collins’ breakout series.
The first film, named for the title of the series “The Hunger Games,” was dry and cautious, compared to “Catching Fire.” If you read reviews or headlines, before seeing this latest film, you knew the big takeaway for critics was the directing. Francis Lawrence, who also directed “I Am Legend,” deserves the credit he’s getting. The other Lawrence, Jennifer, should be praised, as well.
Katniss Everdeen transcends because Jennifer Lawrence seems to have tapped into the character better than you would imagine. She has an Oscar to prove her acting chops, but what she has done with Katniss is create a character on screen that I don’t want to go away after two more movies — I looked it up and they’re splitting “Mockingjay” into two films, per usual.
She’s as in-depth as the books. We can feel her pent up anger and aggression that burns like the fire in her eyes or on her dress and although we can’t hear her thoughts, we feel like we already know them. She’s so virtuous, but intimidating. In “Catching Fire,” compared to the first film, we really care about, understand and grit our teeth for Katniss; whereas, one of the first film’s issues what that she was a character you knew you were supposed to care about, but emotions weren’t boiling over like they were in the theater on Saturday. The sold out audience applauded as loudly when Katniss’ arrow pierced the ceiling of the dome to blackout the Capital’s power, as I remember a bigger audience doing when Neville Longbottom sliced Nagini in the final “Harry Potter.” That’s a special reaction.
Also, this film is bolstered by new cast members. It’s not surprising that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is good, but I thoroughly enjoyed Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason. She was edgy, blunt and perfect. She was the best of the new characters and brought a new element to “Catching Fire” that “The Hunger Games” didn’t: comedy. Don’t underestimate the importance of moments like the one in the elevator between Johanna, Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch, when two things happen. Katniss mistakes one of Johanna’s comments for being directed at her — that everyone wants to sleep with “you” — which is comical in its own right because Katniss assumes she’s the one everybody would be talking about. Then, Johanna strips in front of them, facing them, and her direct eye contact with both Peeta and Katniss as well as everyone’s expressions make the scene click. One movie-goer’s loud comment for Peeta to “Jump on it!” made the rest of the audience laugh, but that scene was important in slowing things down — something a movie like this desperately needs to do, which “The Hunger Games” didn’t. It was just an elevator ride, but a director who can make a scene like that stand out is skilled at his craft. Not that he wrote it into the script, but he included it in the movie. It says a lot about Johanna’s character to do something like that and I thought that was important. Also, I’m pretty sure I remember Malone from “Saved!”. Weird.
Including that scene was one thing, but the executive team of producers and writers earn a tip of the hat by making a pretty crystal clear book-to-movie transition. Not that I’ve read the series, but friends who have tell me that’s the case. That’s difficult to do. To reference Harry Potter again, or even “Twilight”, the post-movie conversation for fans too often becomes about what wasn’t included in the movie. That’s not the case in “Catching Fire.” I might be buying the series on my Kindle as I write this sentence.
The director crafted a beautiful movie. The scene that stands out is the one with the jabberjays, when Katniss and Finnick are drawn into the 4:00 zone by the voices of Prim and Annie and then trapped inside by an invisible barrier. Not only is the muted dialogue between Katniss and Peeta excellent, as other such dialogue are throughout the film, but the overwhelming screeching and Katniss’ scream, while thousands of jabberjays fly frantically overhead, make the whole scene memorable and terrifying. The last scene with Lenny Kravitz is similarly painful. Also, the scene when Katniss is laying in the forrest as the dome falls down around her and the light opens up directly over is beautifully pieced together — such is also the case for the silhouette scene on the beach, when Peeta talks about the sunrise. In these instances, Francis Lawrence is an artist.
The aforementioned opening scene is perfect for the film. It’s a subtle opening, quiet and eery, which is the case for much of “Catching Fire.” You get an uneasy feeling, Katniss kneeling before the lake, that someone is watching or something isn’t right. Beginning to end, there’s color and vibrance that bring the film to life. All you see if relatively extraordinary.
I left the theater bothered by the idea that “Catching Fire” was half a movie and uninspired by the earlier “What’s your favorite color” conversation between tour-bound Katniss and Peeta, but the movie was true to the novel and that’s reason enough to get over any of the little tidbits I was iffy about. They made good by Suzanne Collins. The fact that “Mockingjay” is being split in two is purely financial and likely to be as infuriating as the Harry Potter decision, but the good news is Francis Lawrence is back to direct and the films aren’t far away — slated one year from now and one year apart. It’s a good decision for momentum, as “Divergent,” which is being deemed Hunger Games 2014, wont have much space to breathe or come into its own as a competitive dystopian franchise.
I can’t forget about Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence transformed her character into something special in “Catching Fire.” At the very least, she is a character who deserves to be seen in two more movies, after which she’ll be unforgettable if she’s not that already.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”: ★★★1/2