Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Catching Fire" Proves That "The Hunger Games" Has More To Say Than Other YA Franchises

Directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman - Rated PG-13

Much like the unfortunate deputy, the Capitol has no idea what's about to happen.

The first Hunger Games movie was a welcome departure from the usual young adult adaptation fluff.  Typically, a young adult (or YA) series is either skewed too specifically to its young audience (the Twilight series), or its world is too complicated, or wacky, for the non-readers (insert any of the failed YA franchises here).  The Hunger Games worked because it had something for everyone, and the setting was recognizable.  You had the love triangle business for the tweens, but you had the social satire for the adults.  Sure, the satire wasn't very subtle, but it left you with something to think about.  Plus, there was a strong cast that made you care about the characters.

Catching Fire doesn't simply continue the story of The Hunger Games, it enhances it.  The appropriately titled film (and book) takes the injustices hinted at here and there in the first installment and puts them at the forefront.  Heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) can no longer be the quiet pawn in the government’s game.  She has become a symbol, and it’s impossible for her to keep a low profile.  Because of this, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has to push Katniss back into the spotlight, so he can destroy her and any hopes for a revolution that she might represent. 

This is a fairly basic story as far as dystopian films go.  An impoverished populace must fight their rich overlords.  What makes it different is that this is not a film about planning.  Katniss is truly a game piece that each side uses, often without her knowledge.  Since she is kept in the dark, the audience is as well, for the most part.  The film diverts from the book (which is told only through Katniss’s perspective) with a few scenes with Snow and the new head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but the bulk of the film is told through Katniss’s eyes.  This is important because it leaves some mystery to what could have been a very boring story.  Katniss is an unwilling symbol of freedom that needs to see firsthand the atrocities being committed throughout society.  Instead of boring secret meetings in which plans are hashed out then performed, we get to see Katniss react to the extreme poverty gap.

The Hunger Games is a series that requires you to suspend disbelief and accept that this world, in which the nation’s youth are forced to kill each other for entertainment, exists.  As a free society, the audience may find it hard to believe that humans could ever let things get so bad, but historically, it happens (some would argue it’s happening right now).  Some might think, “How is Katniss so gullible?”  But she is the product of the world she was born in.  There is no grand revolution to celebrate because it hasn’t happened yet.  In fact, it was attempted years ago, and the district that rebelled doesn’t exist anymore.  So her frame of reference for revolution is the opposite of, say, an American’s.  To Katniss, revolution means everything you know and love will be destroyed.  So it’s important for her to see the discontent firsthand.

Director Francis Lawrence, writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (credited as Michael DeBruyn, for some reason), and author Suzanne Collins have done a fantastic job of showing the divide.  Collins, of course, laid the groundwork, and Beaufoy and Arndt focused on the best examples, but Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer) should get most of the credit for presenting it all in a very effective way.  He sticks with the first film’s style by following most of the characters from behind as they walk into scenes, but he has improved upon the original.  Perhaps it’s only because there was more money available, but Catching Fire simply looks better than the first film, which means that the differences between the rich of the Capitol and the suffering of the poor are that much more realistic and powerful.  The staging of most of the film in general is quite effective with the characters small in the frame and the surroundings towering around them.  It created a feeling of the world bearing down on all of these characters.

Who cares about the world bearing down if you don’t like the characters, though?  Thankfully, Catching Fire has enough talent for you to get on board with most of the characters involved.  There are some great actors involved with this, including two Academy Award winners (Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and two more nominees (Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci).  These four acclaimed actors are joined by returning stars Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland, and Liam Hemsworth, to name a few, and a few newcomers in Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, and Lynn Cohen.  The fact that there are even this many roles to be filled by recognizable actors shows that this is no throwaway movie for tweens.  Because of the size of the cast, however, most of the roles rely on screen presence alone. 

Most of the actors are given at least one scene to show off a little bit, but there’s not enough for them to do to stand out in any way.  But it is certainly nice to see the likes of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer in small roles.  The most high profile new addition would be Philip Seymour Hoffman.  His character takes the place of Seneca Crane, aka the guy with the crazy beard, from the first film.  Hoffman looks pretty much like he does in any other movie, but he gets to play up the ruthlessness in this role.  Hoffman is perfect for any role that requires him to seem indifferent to characters around him. 

As for the returning stars, nothing much is going on with them.  Lawrence and Hutcherson both do fine in continuing their fake romance while realizing how bad things are around them.  Banks is still pretty much a walking costume, which is kind of the point with her character.  And Harrelson is still the comic relief as the constantly drunk, but wise, former victor.  If there is a slight fault to the film, it is that his character’s alcoholism is treated so lightly, but laughs are hard to come by in the bleak world of the film, so it’s not a terrible transgression.

Catching Fire, despite the love story and social commentary, is still a bit of an action film, as well.  Since the focus is more on the problems with society than it is on the titular Games, the action is pretty scant until the last hour or so.  But that last hour is filled with plenty of tense moments.  Once again, this might be because of a larger budget, but the action looked better this time around, especially the special effects.  Director Francis Lawrence has used computer effects to his detriment before (I Am Legend), but that may have been simply because the technology was not yet up to snuff.  Either way, it looks great now, as nothing in the Arena segment seemed overly fake or manufactured.

Overall, Catching Fire improves upon the original and solidifies the series as something more than the passing fad that other series were.  There are some big themes about society and life in general behind the blood and love of the story.  Will the tweens focus more on the love triangle and pick which “team” they are on?  Probably.  But for those of us who don’t care who Katniss ends up with, there is a seriously enjoyable movie beyond that love story. 

1 comment:

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