It’s very rare for a sequel to surpass the original film’s quality, but when the bar is set at such a middling level, as it was with ‘The Hunger Games’, it seemed that ‘Catching Fire’ was almost guaranteed to be a better movie, but under the careful eye of director Francis Lawrence, the film both surpasses the original film and, for the most part, will likely end up being the definitive chapter in the saga.
‘Catching Fire’ has an altogether different visual style to it which gives the film the correct tone, which was missing in the very vanilla first movie. There is most artistry and intent in the opening shot of ‘Catching Fire’ than the whole of ‘The Hunger Games’ and that says a lot. That shot, in which Katniss is overlooking a small lake bed in the golden hours of early morning says more about her character than most of the expository scenes of the first film. There is a visual texture to ‘Catching Fire’ that makes it feel worn in and beat up, which is precisely how Katniss and Peeta feel, and is exactly how the audience should feel. The looseness of the the handheld (but not shaky) camera framing and color grading all help sell the bleakness of the movie.
The first half of ‘Catching Fire’ is executed remarkably well, with Katniss and Peeta embarking on a “victory” tour of the Districts. It’s a great tool to get them, and us, to see the misery first-hand and to also glimpse the growing rebellion. The stakes are also remarkably higher, as they should be. Katniss and Peeta arrive at the first stop on the tour and are witness to an impromptu execution of a citizen for letting loose the rallying cry of the Mocking Jay, and Katniss’ heartfelt eulogy to Rue is a surprisingly powerful moment.
The film suffers briefly when President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Jesus Christ, with these names already…) conspire to tighten the noose on the people in effort to quell the rebellion and in doing so introduce Commander Thread into the mix. The character is a scenery-chewing, cigar chomping Dog of War and is just riddled with cliche actions and dialogue. It would probably have been more interesting to play the character as creepy and cryptic, but when you are so beholden to source material, there is little choice in the matter.
Where the film really caught me by surprise- and not in a good way- was when Snow calls for a “Quarter Quell”, which draws the Tributes for the new games from the pool of previous winners. In theory, this is a great idea because it continues to beat down beloved characters and cast a forever-gloomy cloud over the film, which is what should be happening in any genre sequel worth its salt. The risk is that it can potentially turn a sequel that should be doing something unique with the material into a movie that becomes a retread, and that’s precisely what happens with the back-half of ‘Catching Fire’.
Personally, I don’t need or want to see any more actual Hunger Games. The whole of the first film was about the games and it’s time to move on, but frustratingly, we are left to sit through another epic death match, watching people we aren’t really invested in get slaughtered. Instead of killer wasps, there are killer monkeys. Instead of poison berries there is poison fog. Instead of Peeta nearly dying, it’s Peeta who nearly…oh, you get it. It’s a lazy, narrative recycling of events from the first book, and it’s very transparent.
In the end, it also comes off as incredibly contrived. When it’s revealed that all of the “alliance” players along with Heavensbee and Haymitch conspired to break Katniss out so she can become the leader of the revolution, it just feels plain silly. There absolutely was an easier way to sneak her out of the Capitol or even “kill” her before the games. The only reason it plays is to give a second run through of the games a reason for even existing, and it’s a pretty bad reason at that.
But the real bum-out for me with ‘Catching Fire’ was that it set up this really engaging and intriguing notion that Katniss and Peeta are going to see first hand what the stranglehold of the Capital is doing to each district and they would ultimately begin working with the resistance fighters on the DL. Start the war now and let it ramp up and continue in Mockingjay. That of course didn’t happen even though we were given the expectation that it would.
Let’s hope that all this build up is worth it when ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One’ unspools starting tonight.