Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Francis Lawrence // 2013 // 146 mins

Catching Fire, the second film in the Hunger Games series, picks up where its predecessor left off. After achieving an unheard of joint-victory in the last brutal competition Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) begin a victory tour through the 12 districts while having to keep up the facade of the romance that made them so popular and helped save their lives in the games. While the pair are on tour and begin to see signs of a revolution developing against the Capitol, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plot to end Katniss' popularity and life with an all-star edition of the Hunger Games in which previous victors will return to the arena and once again battle to the death.

This is a sequel that surpasses the original in nearly every way, and really taps into the potential of the series. The change in director from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence has benefitted this film to no-end; gone is the shaky-cam that made The Hunger Games so gritty disorientating, with Lawrence bringing a much more solid visual style and direction. There is some truly beautiful cinematography to behold in Catching Fire and it goes a long way in not only elevating the film on an aesthetic level, but also in helping the viewer to engage with the story and characters. It is much, much easier to invest in a story when you can actually see what's going on. The story is richer and on a much larger scale, but what could have become a confusing muddle of plots is instead tightly crafted, well paced and above all very easy to follow. This is no doubt down to the writing talents of Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, who between them have brought us 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Toy Story 3 and Little Miss Sunshine, and do not disappoint with this joint effort.

Clearly Lawrence and his writers benefit from not having to load this film with as much world-building as the first film, and jumping head-first into the narrative forces an instant engagement that holds strong through the films hefty runtime. I'll admit that before I even knew the basic plot outline or saw a trailer for this film I though that I had it all figured out and I had low expectations, but to the credit of Suzanne Collin's novel and the filmmakers I was pleasantly surprised countless times and never disappointed by the plot. There are a lot of large themes and narrative strands running through this story and they are each balanced perfectly against each other, and even though the games themselves only take up around a half hour of the film they are much more tense and exciting than the events of the previous film. The higher standard of production values also go a long way to achieving this. For the films first half, set during the Victors Tour, the the costumes are more ridiculous and extravagant and the world feels more fully realised. When the games begin the visual effects are much better, the action is much better and the jungle setting feels every bit as dangerous as it is supposed too.

Where this film truly excels though is in the cast that breathe life into this tighter screenplay. Leading the show Jennifer Lawrence continues her streak of solid work, exploring new emotional and psychological regions of Katniss' character and showing no signs of buckling under the pressure of an extended franchise role. The weakest link is Josh Hutcherson, which is unfortunate given his characters importance, but this feels more a fault of Peeta being an undeveloped and quite uninteresting character as Hutcherson is clearly doing as much he can with the character. The romance between the two of them still feels forced and unconvincing, particularly in comparison to the chemistry between Lawrence and Hemsworth, though Katniss' internal narration getting lost in translation to the big screen must surely contribute to this as her motivations and feelings are never clear in the film.

The Hunger Games, for all of it's high points, was very much the Katniss/Peeta/Gale show and prioritised the bizarre love triangle over everything else. Catching Fire learns from this misstep and strives to let each and every supporting player shine. Where The Hunger Games had Rue as the only side character for us to feel for and invest in, here there is an abundance of such characters. Reprising their roles from the first film Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Woody Harrelson and Liam Hemsworth are each given much stronger material and all deliver. They contribute the most to making this a more emotionally engaging story, with Banks in particular delivering an extravagant yet understated performance. Then there are the newcomers; Sam Claflin as Finnick, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee and Lynn Cohen as Mags all creating strong and engaging characters in the short space of time that they have, while Jena Malone as Johanna Mason is a true scene-stealer and a wonderful surprise.

Catching Fire works incredibly hard to improve on The Hunger Games in every way, and does so to great effect. This film feels like a more carefully considered and well-crafted story that sheds the predictability of its predecessor and is brought to life in stunning cinematography and heartfelt performances. This is a game-changer for the franchise and if this standard of filmmaking carries over to Mockingjay parts 1 and 2 then the series is certainly going to go out with a bang.

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