Monday, 23 December 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Directed by Francis Lawrence; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

Rating: 4/5

The best dystopian fiction holds a mirror up to our own society, extrapolating current trends to extreme endpoints. Here, in a grim future America, the gaudy citizens of the Capital lead lives of leisure amid the glittering spires of their neo-classical metropolis while the Appalachian miners of District 12 carve a meagre living straight out of the Great Depression. Every year, they are forced to participate in their oppressors’ sadistic version reality TV (with brilliantly over the top X-factor style commentary): the titular Hunger Games, an annual gladiatorial combat between children, in which the sole survivor emerges as victor.

The face of the revolution is the teenage Katniss (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence) whose strong performance drives a film which is otherwise far from subtle. Yet there’s no doubt that this film is thoroughly exciting and engaging. For a start, the young actors here are miles better than the cast of the cheesy ‘80s slasher flicks I’ve been watching lately.

The visuals are fantastic and the cast is rounded out with both old and new blood, including Woody Harrelson as Katniss’ grizzled mentor, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the smooth talking new games master. Donald Sutherland returns as the villainous President Snow, his soft spoken exterior belying the brutal stranglehold he maintains on the populace.

One year after Katniss and her fellow ‘tribute’ Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) won the last Hunger Games, the president decrees that this year’s competitors will be drawn from the existing pool of victors (who believed they had earned their freedom); as if to deny that the games are anything more than a ritual execution.

So Katniss and Peeta must head back into the arena for a second round, facing twenty five years worth of combatants who’ve murdered their way out once already. While more time is devoted to the Games social impact and the brewing rebellion, there is a feeling that Catching Fire treads familiar ground. Much of the thematic material held true for the first film, and this instalment is little more than a continuation of the narrative. The biggest difference is that the battle is between veterans and not children.

Gary Ross hands the directorial reigns to Francis Lawrence, whose back catalogue, including Constantine (2005) and I am Legend (2007) suggests a darker sequel, though Lawrence inherits much of the design and atmosphere directly from his predecessor. This is ultimately delivered, yet we are treated to the inevitably unsatisfying cliff hanger as the narrative heads towards its presumably epic conclusion in next year’s Mockingjay.

The weakest part of the story is the attempted love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale which started in the last film. It pales in comparison to the wider struggle of the story and is perhaps wisely downplayed. Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who somehow has third billing) is a childhood friend of Katniss, but feels like a redundant character, appearing in very few scenes to give the TV a jealous glance whenever he sees Peeta, who has infinitely more screen time, but says and does less than he did in the last film.

The new police uniforms, a departure from the more standard half-visors seen in the first film, are a little too much like Star Wars storm troopers crossed with The Stig, and look downright bizarre when worn without a helmet. This undermines some of the intensity of the new police chief of District 12, who is otherwise brutal and intimidating.

As far as run time is concerned, so many of these epic fantasy novel adaptations are a little on the long side. At 146 minutes, Catching Fire is only quarter of an hour shorter than the somewhat bloated The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the other film I saw this week. How much of a problem this becomes depends on your investment in the source material.

I've not read any of the novels, so as a casual viewer, this felt a lot longer than The Hobbit, but I can imagine a lot of people feeling the opposite. That’s fine, but it can alienate those on the periphery of the fan base.

Alternatively, while I felt that some of the Harry Potter films had the potential to flash past in a series of semi-confusing vignettes for anyone unfamiliar with the books, I never felt lost in the narrative of this film, or the one that preceded it.

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