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The Best & The Worst Of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 25, 2013 at 1:40PM

Now officially the all-time November opening record holder, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" was always a fairly sure thing in terms of box office. But what's more impressive is the advance word on the film (our own included), and the buzz around it, which has been so positive, with it being touted as the rare sequel that improves on the original, and with many going so far as to compare it to "The Empire Strikes Back." (Though, to be honest, we think that comparison is more to do with how open-ended it feels, with the good guys separated and some of them still imperiled, at the film's close.) Some of us might not go quite that far, but certainly director Francis Lawrence has made good on delivering a broader, more nuanced and more layered film than the first, which is fitting considering he was adapting what we'd consider the best of the three books, by quite some distance.
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Donald Sutherland, Catching Fire

The Bad

The One-Note Villain
Subtlety has never been a “Hunger Games” specialty, but Donald Sutherland’s sneering President Snow is glowering menace to the point that he might as well be twirling the ends of his beard. It’s not so much the acting itself, it's just that Snow isn’t given much to do other than threaten, menace and glare at Katniss every chance he gets, but it’s so one-note and repetitive, it becomes a little annoying.

The First Act: "Show, Don’t Tell" Issues & The Missed Opportunity Of Exploiting Theme
Put aside for one moment that we’re supposed to believe that one girl victor has given an entire country a sense of renewed hope to the point that it might topple a totalitarian dictatorship (neatly summed up by Katniss herself who remarks on the fragility of a system that could be brought down by a few berries). Now it’s nice that Plutarch convinces the President to let her get killed in the arena and all, but every self-respecting dictator from Stalin on down would have snuffed her out the second he scented a whiff of dissent. And so as if to compensate for the creative license taken here with credibility, all of Snow’s dialogue is painfully expository: she’s a threat, she can damage our world, she needs to be stopped, etc. None of the themes of rebellion, blooming hope and “catching fire” ever really have a chance to fully be realized because Snow and others are essentially spelling them out in conversation with each other in every scene. Of course this runs counter to the 101 rule of filmmaking: show, don't tell. 

And sure we see some graffiti and seditious scrawls on walls here and there, but generally we’re told that Panem is discovering hope rather than actively being shown it and thus we barely ever feel it. This is arguably the problem with the entire first act (and beyond, see "watching world" point below): every important detail is told and not shown. Plutarch replacing Seneca Crane as head games master? Yeah, this is dispensed with through dialogue in a quick aside. The districts rioting? Joanna Mason mentions it in passing. Even the capture of Joanna and Peeta, and the destruction of District 12 is something we hear about, rather than see, and therefore any groundswell moment of change is something we never feel and this is perhaps the film's biggest missed opportunity. The taste and smell of change could be in the air during the movie and this rising civil disobedience could be something, rousing, moving, heart-swelling, something the audience could actively cheer for (see any Obama-like commercial from his first election campaign where there was electricity in the air). This would have elevated 'Catching Fire' beyond simple entertainment and connected it to the consciousness on a much more powerful level. Alas, 'Catching Fire' isn't really interested in really exploring this avenue of thematic texture. And while some of the "show, don't tell" decisions are to do with making sure the audience has a similar level of knowledge to Katniss herself, the cumulative effect if to make the world of the film feel smaller, and more airless.

Catching Fire Control room

During The Games, No Sense Of The Watching World
An offshoot of our main "show, don't tell" gripe, the second half also suffers from us not being shown the impact of Katniss's actions on the wider world.  While Katniss and the other tributes battle the environment and each other in the dome, and we occasionally cut to Plutarch and the drones in the control room, and even once to Snow, we never get a sense of how the people of the Capitol and beyond are responding to the Quarter Quell Games. In the first film, we recall, the position of the cameras and the sense of a world watching that needed to be played to or manipulated into sending in help or whatever, was ever-present. This time there's no sense that they are all involved in, essentially, a very bloodthirsty TV show. And since we know the meta-narrative of this film is Katniss's growing fame outside the arena, as a symbol of resistance and potential revolution among the people, it feels like a sore absence that we don't see how the people are reacting to her various perils.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Still Hampered By Its PG-13 Rating
When the first film was released, it drew comparisons to the Japanese masterpiece "Battle Royale," in which children outfitted with explosive collars are forced to kill each other in increasingly creative and ghoulish ways. Still, the films differed in a clear area:  the violence in the Japanese film was explicit and punchy, while "The Hunger Games" had violence that was obscured and blurry. It was less impactful, but it meant that the book's young adult demographic could actually, you know, watch the movie. While "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" has a plotline that is less controversial (since adults and even elderly people are entered into the arena), it still feels hampered by its ratings board restrictions. The deaths are similarly quick and hard to register, even though the movie takes on a gloomier, doomier tone. The PG-13 rating is probably also what means we're denied a sequence that is described instead and seems really cool: a blood rain that chokes the combatants to death. Now that we would have loved to have seen. That all said, however, the focus of the story this time out is in general shifting away from what happens during the Games, so while the certificate is a factor, it doesn't seem to impact on the finished film quite as much as it did the first time out.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Missed Opportunities To Develop The Love Triangle More Coherently
We're hesitant to come down too hard on the love triangle as it is much less simplistically drawn than that of nearest equivalent phenomenon, "Twilight," and as such is a relief, but it does still feel like we're missing a few of the intermediate steps between Katniss behaving coolly toward Peeta and asking Gale to run away with her, and her warming to Peeta personally even as she passionately, belligerently forces Haymitch and the others to promise to save him at her own expense. As much as Peeta has started to develop into a more interesting character, still Katniss seems to run pretty hot and cold on him, and not necessarily for any discernible reason. As such, we were hoping that the scene in which Peeta comes to sit with the recuperating Gale would give us some insight into how the two relate to each other, but instead we follow Katniss out into the snow. Again it seems that we are really mostly meant to be experiencing only those things that Katniss herself experiences, which is fine except that allying us so closely with her subjectivity should mean we understand what makes her tick, and when it comes to her interactions with Peeta, we just don't, really.

This article is related to: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Features, Feature, Jennifer Lawrence, Francis Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland


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