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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review: reluctant heroine

The Hunger Games Catching Fire green light Jennifer Lawrence

A devastating indictment of pop culture as propaganda — about its power and the limits of its powers — and an upending of the typical teen-girl romance movie.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved the first film

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have read the source material (and I love it)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Luke Skywalker never suffered from PTSD.

Well, we can presume he did. We can easily imagine that he woke up from nightmares drenched in sweat. We just never saw it onscreen. Depicting that sort of thing used to be the domain of angsty fan fiction. Nowadays, Tony Stark, in 3D IMAX, can’t sleep after New York. And we get our reintroduction to Katniss Everdeen, cowinner of the 74th Hunger Games, via a tremendously horrific flashback she experiences in what was once her safe place, her secret hunting grounds in the woodsy fringes of District 12.

Her life as she knew it is over. And Catching Fire is her “victory tour” through her new life as a prop in an endless propaganda parade propping up the spoiled, despotic Capitol that bleeds its impoverished Districts dry of all resources, demanding even the lives of their children in the annual bloodsport battle-to-the-death Hunger Games.

You know, for kids.

Like the first film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is startling in the casual brutality of its future world. Katniss (the glorious Jennifer Lawrence: House at the End of the Street, Silver Linings Playbook) has not been anything like a classic hero — and I don’t mean because of her gender. She is not a rebel. She is not an idealist. She’s not Luke Skywalker. She has never dreamed of overthrowing the Capitol, and she isn’t starting now. She is pure pragmatism in a tough world with few options at her disposal, and she is doing what she must to save her own skin and protect those she loves. She is blatant about this: “I did what I had to do to survive,” she says of the Games.

This is not a thing that heroes say. Sometimes it’s clear that’s what they’re about, just regular guys — almost always guys — thrown into a bad situation they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. But I can’t recall one of them ever actively pushing away the role thrust upon them… nor a story itself seeming to work toward the apparent diminution of its protagonist. I might even find myself fighting suspicions that this was a function of the, er, non-Hollywood-traditional gender of said protagonist, except that Katniss is probably the most plausible hero — yes, she’s definitely still a hero — that could come out of this oppressive world. A hero here could only arise accidentally.

Katniss is a marvelous cutdown of the preposterousness that too often passes for heroism in Hollywood, and a marvelous jab at the limited autonomy Hollywood most often grants women characters.

See, Fire takes place over the year after Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson: Epic, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) won the Games for District 12. The unprecedented dual winners are the result of Katniss’s canny ploy of pretending to be madly in love with Peeta, which endeared them to the Capitol audience watching on television, and then, when they were the last two standing, convincing Peeta that they should eat poison berries and both die together rather than one having to kill the other and be separated forever. So romantic! The Capitol audience ate it up, and the Gamesmakers figured they’d better let both live and win, lest they have a riot on their hands. Not a real riot, of course — the people of the Capitol are too well-fed and docile for that. But a PR disaster, at least.

Now, Katniss and Peeta are embarking on the traditional Victors’ Tour of the Districts, meant to spread the fear and remind everyone — again — that they are under the bootheel of the Capitol. Katniss must maintain that pretense of passion for Peeta, lest the people mistake Katniss’s gesture for rebellion. President Snow himself (a smarmy, menacing Donald Sutherland: The Eagle, The Mechanic) threatens Katniss in this regard: she must keep up the “love-crazed besotted schoolgirl routine.” Or Else.

But it’s too late. Whatever she intended, those watching in the Districts saw defiance: Katniss changed the rules, and that’s not supposed to be possible. They’ve caught a glimmer of hope. And now actual for-real riots are in the offing.

Katniss is awesome as a character, and remarkable as a hero, because her battle is with herself. She wants to protect her family — which includes not only her mother (Paula Malcomson: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Green Mile) and sister, Prim (Willow Shields), but also the boy she’s really in love with, Gale (Liam Hemsworth: The Expendables 2, The Last Song), even though she cannot admit that, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson: Now You See Me, Seven Psychopaths), the other surviving Games winner from District 12 who continues to mentor Kat and Peeta — but she cannot help but be the girl for whom disregarding the rules is as normal as breathing. (Her hunting is most certainly criminal, since long before she volunteered for the Games to replace Prim.) She cannot fake anything. She’s not doing things she’d rather not be doing: she’s doing what she can’t not do. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the book!) Part of the smartness of The Hunger Games is that the overarching story is about Katniss discovering herself and growing into herself in a way that she might not have chosen but that probably wasn’t something she would ever have had much choice over. She is strong in ways that she doesn’t realize yet… but is beginning to discover. This battle with herself was going to be fought even if she hadn’t ended up in the Games. (We saw this from the get-go, with her defiant illegal hunting.) She is not a hero who is being molded by extraordinary events — she is the one molding the extraordinary events to her. Even if that isn’t her intention.

So Katniss is special, and so is the story around her. Catching Fire is a devastating indictment of pop culture as propaganda — about its power and the limits of its powers — within its own context, as with the disgusting spectacle that is TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci: The Fifth Estate, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) and his supernaturally white teeth and unctuous manner. And outside its context, too: it upends the typical teen-girl romance movie by showing it off as the false playacting it is (“love-crazed besotted schoolgirl routine”!). It’s a strike at the willful ignorance of the well-off in the face of poverty and desperation all around them. How do the people of the Capitol cope with the fact of their lives of comfort and luxury next to the deaths of poor children? As the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Late Quartet, Moneyball), tells Katniss at an obscenely lavish party in the Capitol in her and Peeta’s honor, “If you abandon your moral judgment, it can be fun.”

I can’t exactly say that Catching Fire is “fun,” then, but with its excellent sociological sci-fi speculation and solid adventure, it’s enormously rewarding and provocative drama in the guise of popcorn entertainment.

US/Canada release date: Nov 22 2013 | UK release date: Nov 21 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated HoF for the triumph of Hope over Fear
MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language
BBFC: rated 12A (contains moderate violence and threat, and infrequent strong language)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • RogerBW

    I’m hoping they don’t split the last film into two in the recent style; the last book is pretty slight in places. But it sounds as though this is continuing to do a decent job of bringing the book series to screen; hurrah!

  • Dr. Rocketscience
  • RogerBW

    Meh. Blatant cash-in; there really isn’t the content to support it. Oh well, thanks for letting me know.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I suspect they will beef up Katniss’s role in *Mockinjay.* (Having your protagonist spend half the story recuperating in bed might work in a book, but it won’t work on the screen.) Which means there could be enough content for two films.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    This is, in some ways, more powerful than the book, as the first film was. I mean, there are visual aspects to this story, particularly in the contrasts between Capitol and Districts, that work even better on the big screen. And Katniss as a character with a limited appreciation of herself and her place in the world also works better once we’re outside her head, as the movies allow.

  • Jack Bauer

    Ah what are you talking about

  • Mr Snessbitt

    I have read the book and was wondering whether the film explains what the Victory Tour is, well enough so people who haven’t read the book can understand what is going on.

  • Matt Clayton

    Is there much of a tonal difference between Gary Ross’ work on the first film and Francis Lawrence’s work here? I know Lawrence put his stamp on the film (i.e. no crazy handheld shots), or is it pretty seamless?

  • Matt Clayton

    Lionsgate pretty much announced there would be four movies, back in early 2011. It’s not a “Surprise!” last-minute thing like Peter Jackson’s boneheaded move to make two Hobbit films into three.

  • RogerBW

    I believe you; I just don’t see a lot of film PR material and it hadn’t occurred to me before that anyone would do such a daft thing with this particular trilogy.

  • Jack Bauer

    Im pretty sure they will I could see Haymitch talking to them about it before it starts and explaining it to the audience that way.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Totally seamless.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Yes, the film explains.

  • Charlotte Marks

    I just want to thank you for this intelligent, thoughtful, insightful review. I’ve read several in the past couple of days, and the number of clueless reviewers makes me shake my head in dismay. They’re either disinterested in the meaning of these films or just hopelessly obtuse. Thank you for Getting It.

  • Rsmile

    I agree. Did you read the review by Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly? It is obvious in his review that he didn’t even watch the movie.

  • Rsmile

    Mockingjay, the last book in the series, is too complicated and too long NOT to split it into two movies. Can’t wait for Part 1 next year.

  • Jess

    (I couldn’t get access to the original thread so Im replying here)

    FYI, I DID read the books, all of them, so I don’t know what your deal is. I was talking aboiut what a whiney little bitch the actress was being particularly when she screams “Kat-niss and her voice cracks making her sound pitiful. Considering I know she gets blown up I think that settles that I’ve read the books. I don’t need to like the character to have completed the series.

  • Jess

    Fuck them. The movie is catered to the fans.

  • Rsmile

    Why are you even replying to my comment? I was not replying to yours. I think you posted it in the wrong section.

  • Rsmile

    Gary Ross didn’t follow the book very much and was so replaced by Lawrence.

  • MisterAntrobus

    I have not read the books, and the Victory Tour was perfectly clear to me from watching the movie.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It’s hard to say, based on everyone’s public statements, if Gary Ross left “Catching Fire” or was fired. But if he was fired, it’s highly unlikely it had anything to do with whether or not his script to “Hunger Games” “didn’t follow the book very much”. “The Hunger Games” was hugely successful. Changing production teams in order to preserve fidelity to the text* would have been much too big a gamble for Universal, one with high risk and very little in terms of a reward ceiling. I’m willing to accept that he simply didn’t want to spend every waking moment of the next 18 months trying to hit a Holidays 2015 release date. He probably told them Summer or Fall 2016. At that point, either the studio pressed and he walked, or the studio insisted, he balked, and they fired him.

    * Something studios don’t really care that much about, in part because filmmakers, unlike fans, know that total fidelity is impossible.

  • Jess

    Oh really?

    “Jess obviously didn’t read the books so is making comments that are annoying to those who have read all 3 books.”

  • Bluejay

    Wait, did you guys have a fight on a different forum that you’re taking into this forum? Not cool. Go take your personal quarrel somewhere else.

  • Jess

    Dude, go fuck yourself

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It suffers from Middle Chapter Syndrome in a lot of ways, I’m not sure the plot really makes sense, and it ends on completely the wrong last shot. But it’s very good. Much more emotionally engaging throughout than the first film.

  • RobertP

    Minor spoiler contained herein.

    At the very end Sean Connery makes a surprise appearance as the king!!

    Kidding, there is a spoiler though.

    Saw it tonight. Do the books give more insight as to the characters of Effie Trinket and President Snow? I.e. – how did she come to be the designated annoying shill for the Capitol? Snow is a central character but he’s presented as a cardboard cutout evil overlord.

    Am I mistaken or when Snow was drinking the wine (?) did he backwash blood?

  • RobertP

    Apparently the term “quarter quell” was invented for this movie. Going several pages deep in Google I find no reference to it in any other context.

  • Bluejay

    I missed the blood backwash in the film. But if it’s there, then it’s a clever reference to the book, in which President Snow’s breath always smells of blood (hence his fondness for roses, which cover up the smell).

    As for why that’s the case: I don’t know if this is intended to be a spoiler for the sequels, but the full answer is here.

    Snow didn’t seem like such a cardboard cutout to me, but maybe that’s just because I know how much thought Donald Sutherland put into the role. He wrote a long letter to the director of the first film which was basically a philosophical essay on the character, and a meditation on power and evil. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the end result from being a cutout. YMMV. :-)

  • Bluejay

    The term is in the books as well. But no, I haven’t seen it anywhere else either.

  • RobertP

    Right, that’s what I meant, invented for the story.

  • AA

    FYI, Gary Ross didn’t leave for the second one, they started the process of building the second one before the end of production on the first film, so they always had a second team (including director) already in place. I’m glad they did, because they (both directors and production teams) did a fantastic job bringing the world to the big screen. The books are Katniss’ POV, but the resonance of her matter of fact actions are so much bigger in the world’s context.

    I’m loving everything to do with the series and can’t wait until 3.A!