24 November 2013

"Nobody Ever Wins the Games. Period."

It's been over 18 months since the movie adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy was released, and after much anticipation, a new director and some glowing reviews, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is finally out. I liked the first book and really enjoyed the first film, but I was more reticent about Catching Fire, mainly because the book on which it is based, along with the third and final title in the series, Mockingjay, felt like lazy add-ons. But given the praise the new film has been getting and given the dearth of good films lately, I decided to go and see Catching Fire. Although I'll try not to spoil too much about Catching Fire, there are inevitably some spoilers for the first film (and book) below, so look away now if you need to catch up.

At the end of the first Hunger Games film, our heroine Katniss Everdean (Jennifer Lawrence), plucky huntress, manages to outwit the Panem powers-that-be to survive the titular games along with her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Panem is the seriously dysfunctional dystopian society the United States becomes in the not-too-distant future. Ruled by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who, along with his fellow leaders in the Capitol, Panem is divided into 12 districts, each of which must offer up two teenage "tributes" each year to take part in the Hunger Games — a brutal fight to the death of which there can be only one winner — as punishment for attempting to rise up against the Capitol and the regime 74 years earlier.

By threatening a double-suicide at the end of the last Games, which would have left the Capitol without a victor, Katniss forced Snow to allow her and Peeta both to survive. They get to live in the victors' village in their district — occupied by the only other living victor, the often drunk and always sardonic Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) — and they never have to take part in another Hunger Games again. Hooray. All they need to do, before Katniss can go back to her life and to the guy she really loves, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), is go on a victory tour of each of the 12 districts and attend a swanky party at the Capitol. Simple, hey?

However, President Snow was not taken in by Katniss's act of being in love with Peeta on-screen and, as unrest in some of the districts starts to pick up, he warns her that she had better do a better job of convincing everyone that she did what she did for love and not as a protest against the regime, or else her family and Gale might not make it through the night. Katniss does her best, but even when she plays the lovesick teenager at the public visits she makes on the tour of the districts, the people salute her and whistle her trademark mockingjay tune; she wore a mockingjay pin in the first film, given to her by her sister Primrose (Willow Shields). "You never get off this train," Haymitch tells her, when she notes how much she is looking forward to the end of the tour.

Clearly, the masses have found their messiah and President Snow is not happy. Luckily for him, the next Hunger Games is a quarter quell — a particularly nasty version of the Games that takes place every 25 years. Together with Plutarch "I'm the head game maker: fun is my job" Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he devises a solution to all of his problems: this quarter quell will involve the tributes being selected from among the living victors of each district, Katniss, of course, being the only living female victor in district 12. Haymitch is selected as district 12's male tribute, but naturally, Peeta volunteers instead of him, so off they go again. And we get to see the quirky Capitol characters from the last instalment: the colourful, crazy-haired chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), slimy host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Katniss's stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who, on the pre-Games show, makes her wear a beautiful wedding dress (the one she would have worn if she and Peeta had been able to get married), which catches fire (hey, that's the name of the movie) and turns into a mockingjay costume. Nice.

They are competing against a whole lot of even more bad-ass contestants from the other districts, who a) have already survived once and b) all know each other. Haymitch advises them to make some allies, but Katniss isn't impressed by the sexy-and-I-know-it Finnick (Sam Clafrin) or brooding mean girl Johanna (Jena Malone), although she is tempted by the brainier, older pair, Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Beetee). And so the Games begin, and the odds are still not in anyone's favour. Or, at least, so it seems. Grudgingly making an alliance with Finnick and later Johanna, Wiress and Beetee, Katniss and Peeta do their best to steer clear of the other contestants, especially the careers from district one, Abercrombie & Fitch Cashmere and Gloss, which is no mean feat when the arena itself unleashes a different source of death and doom every hour.

Is there a way that Katniss can cheat death — and Snow — again, without putting Peeta, Gale and her family into danger? Does she care for Peeta more than she's willing to admit? And why aren't there more cute guys in Catching Fire? I enjoyed Peter Lawrence's film and was gripped right up to the twist-and-cliffhanger ending, but like the the book, Catching Fire still felt like a bridge between the first instalment (with the full focus on the Games) and the final part, where (spoiler alert) there are no Games, just a whole lot of uprisings. The Games don't even start until more than halfway through the 2h25 film and the outcome is less satisfying — certainly without the third part to explain and to add context. Jennifer Lawrence was excellent, again, but there were so many other characters, no one else really had time to shine. Peeta is, let's face it, a bit of a wet blanket, although a kind one, and Gale gets very little screen time, most of it he spends brooding.

Catching Fire is probably a better film than The Hunger Games, but I enjoyed the latter a lot more, not least because it has a key, central idea and its to it, rather than dabbling in too many different aspects that only make sense once you've seen the final part. Or, in this case, the final parts because yes, they've decided to split Mockingjay into two parts. I am slightly biased because I think the second two books shouldn't have been written in the first place, but there is no need for this and it stinks of greed and lazy editing. < / rant>

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