The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (UK Cert 12A)

The original Hunger Games arrived with enough hype to rival the London 2012 games. The first big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ ridiculously successful teenage novels, this was to be the beginning of a huge film franchise that would go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Harry Potter; the brand new Twilight. While the original film made enough money to buy a lifetime supply of Drumstick lollies and then some, the reaction from Collins’ fans, and those who had never picked up the books, was lukewarm. The film was watered down, lacking both the smart observations and brutal violence that made the books so celebrated. I have to hold my hands up and admit that I have never read the books, but from what friends have told me, The Hunger Games is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale with a heart. The big screen version of The Hunger Games I saw was Battle Royale for the kiddies, with all the satire and teenage slaying removed to conveniently give the film a 12A rating.

It did not take the bigwigs at Lionsgate long to green light a sequel, and here we are with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. On the plus side, Catching Fire has learnt a few lessons since the original, though it’s unlikely to be troubling the likes of Hogwarts and Co. When the film does get going (which takes a while; it’s nearly two-and-a-half hours and during the first hour very little happens), you rarely stop to breathe, with one impressive set piece after another. Just as before, Jennifer Lawrence proves why she is the go-to-girl for Hollywood’s leading roles and why she totally deserved to win an Oscar.

Again, I’m pointing out that I have not read the novels, and maybe this is what screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Ardnt have had to work with, but the satire and nods feel as subtle as a brick through a window. The first hour of Catching Fire is virtually scene-after-scene of not so much nods, but head-butts to what’s going on in our world today: those with too much and those with not enough; politicians abusing their power; the public’s consumption for reality TV and how far these shows are willing to go for entertainment. Without sounding patronising, raising these issues is important, but there are contemporary films out there that have been far more successful at highlighting the world’s flaws. In Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, what made the film so heart-breaking was that at no point do its protagonists even consider an uprising, instead choosing to accept their fate. Also, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men showed us an alternative future, suggesting that it’s not too big a leap to see Britain becoming a nation of fascists. It wouldn’t be so bad if there was some character development or a narrative to push the film forward, and while there are a handful of scenes, for the most part Catching Fire’s first hour is determined to list the many injustices of this world in as blatant a way as possible.

Catching Fire feels like two films that have been bolted onto each other. You have the plodding first hour followed by the remainder of the film, which makes up for this with CGI set piece after CGI set piece. All of these scenes are brilliantly put together, and you do find yourself worrying about the characters (a scene involving a massive flock of mocking jays is chilling), though this is more because you are watching someone in deadly danger rather than actually caring about them. Jena Malone gets the most intriguing role as Johanna, driven mad by the Hunger Games and what it has cost, both to her and the people she loves. Unfortunately her backstory, the reason why she’s so angry all of the time, is explained away in an all too brief summing up by one of the supporting characters. With Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, you’re not cheering him on because he is in love with Katniss, or because Peeta is a fully fleshed out character; it’s because he’s so damn nice.

Despite the film’s faults, for most of its running time it is a thrilling watch. When the tributes finally enter the arena it is action-packed and unrelenting, ending on a cliff-hanger that will certainly have me watching part three. There is plenty of bang for your buck here – poisonous fog, giant baboons and tidal waves to name just a few – and Jennifer Lawrence is perfect throughout. Katniss may not be the most complex film heroine, but Lawrence gives it her all, one minute being tough as hell with a bow and arrow, the next being caring and compassionate, letting that tough pretence suddenly slip. You can forgive many of Catching Fire’s problems because Lawrence does such a great job.

Rating: 3 out of 5


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