I didn’t think much of The Hunger Games. I could forgive it being derivative of all the sci-fi archetypes, but I can’t forgive it for being less interesting than all of them. I mean, if it’s the first one some kid has ever seen, I hope it makes them more interested in The Running Man, Robocop, Die Hard and First Blood. The handheld cinematography was a total copout so they can show all the child killings in a PG-13 format, because you don’t really “see” the blood. Plus, for a movie set largely at night, the night scenes are so underlit they look ugly. I totally saw the twist ending coming, and I hadn’t read the book. That’s just how you defeat a manipulative oppressor, right? Isn’t that what you always do when a manipulative oppressor forces you to kill each other?
However, as soon as you make a sequel it becomes instantly more interesting to me. The Hunger Games may be derivative of survival adventures and Lord of the Flies style violence, but what happens after you win a Hunger Games? And how do you top the first Hunger Games, whether it was derivative or just rivative? Catching Fire does all that, and it’s made by a much better director so it’s more exciting to watch.
Katniss (Jennifer “J-Law” Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are on a PR tour for winning the Hunger Games, and they have to keep up the act of being in love because that’s how they won. Or is it just an act? Seems like it is. Defeating the totalitarian government isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, because everyone Katniss inspires to rebel just gets killed by the militia. Yet the spirit of rebellion is still too strong so President Snow (Donald Sutherland) with his new henchman Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devise an even more evil Hunger Games. They will pick the new contestants entirely from winners of previous Hunger Games.
Now that’s a real slap in the face, ain’t it? Imagine you murdered 23 other children to survive this contest, and then they say you have to do it again. Meaning of the 24 winners, 23 of them are still going to be killed after all. For Katniss it was just last year, but some of the winners have been living quite peaceful lives for decades since their victory. Just when they thought they were out, as it were. This makes for a far more interesting Hunger Games because each combatant is a real character. They all have some defining characteristic, rather than the slew of anonymous children from the last Hunger Games we saw. This ranges from Johanna (Jena Malone)’s pure badass to Beetee (Geoffrey Wright)’s brains to outsmart the competition.
Even the plans Katniss and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) make to keep Peeta out of the competition are an interesting response to a format established in the first film, but come on, you didn’t think it would be Woody in the J-Hutch role, did you?
The elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen) is forced into the competition and the heroes try to keep her alive as long as possible. That’s nice lip service to morality in crisis, but it’s done away with as soon as possible to keep the story moving. You didn’t think this was the one where they let an old lady win the Hunger Games, did you?
The games take place in a new arena, which is a gimmick but it’s a good gimmick. It spins to disorient the combatants, and presents a series of unnatural elements to kill them. Really, the arena claims more lives than any of the characters, which is a major copout, but it was already a copout so at least it’s a cleverer a copout this time.
Like The Hunger Games, Catching Fire manages to prevent Katniss from actually killing anyone in cold blood. She indirectly killed some with the Trackerjacker nest in the first one, and killed in self-defense, but never was called upon to kill in cold blood, let alone kill a character the audience likes. This comes from the book, so it was written with focus groups in mind. Was Suzanne Collins so concerned with likability that she was terrified if Katniss makes any morally ambiguous decision, she’ll lose the audience? Or that Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie out of it then? This isn’t the sort of strength of character in the face of a moral crisis we should be teaching young readers, but with that already established, this is a more fun adventure to see her go on. It’s interesting to see her deal with PTSD.
Francis Lawrence has a much stronger style for shooting sci-fi action than Gary Ross. It’s pretty basic, but the basics were missing from the shaky underlit mess of the first movie so it’s worth noting how one can present this content without selling out. All the violence happens off screen. You can show coherent action scenes in an artful PG-13 format. That’s not watering it down. It’s less is more, show don’t tell, or rather don’t show either but you still get it. That’s how I imagined it when I read the first book. I know how movies work. When I read someone is shot, I don’t expect to see a full frontal head-exploding bloodbath. I expect the camera will move as the gun is drawn and the gunshot will occur off screen. It has the same impact, perhaps more unless it’s a Tarantino or Coen Brothers gunshot.
The Blu-ray looks great all around but really comes to life when it expands to the full Imax frame. Even in Imax, you can tell when it’s actually shot with Imax cameras and when it’s just constructed for large format. The pure Imax footage is when it’s really a Blu-ray with crisp clarity and texture. The widescreen footage in the first half is bright and colorful too, with many memorable compositions in the frame. It’s maybe a bit overlit as it feels a tad washed out. However, Catching Fire is shot 35mm, which gives a film texture to all the shots, and maybe I’m just not used to looking at film in HD anymore.
I think the main bonus feature on Catching Fire is the six-minute sneak peak at Divergent, the next big teen lit franchise from Lionsgate subsidiary Summit. The spot seems mostly intent on explaining the story so viewers can be sure they know what they’re going to get, but there’s a lot of great on set footage of action. I hope the cameras actually filming the fights for the movie are as steady as the behind the scenes crew.
The two and a half hour “Making-Of” documentary is a lot of behind the scenes material, so bravo for thoroughness. While most of this is standard production material at this point in the history of cinema and home video, what you do get out of it is that even aesthetic factors like fashion and wardrobe have deep character motivations. Everyone from the cast and crew participates, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it is cool to see them build the new cornucopia.
Four minutes of deleted scenes indicate how redundant exposition can make it to production before they realize in post that it’s already been covered. A few more explanations of the new Quarter Quell plan, and particularly a long sequence of Plutarch manipulating the games, all communicate effectively but they’re not new information.
The commentary by Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson is obviously going to be more technical than if the cast were included. Lawrence is good at simplifying the production info in concise soundbites, and I’ve got to thank him for pointing out when the footage transitions into pure Imax. That’s how I was able to explain why the footage got so much sharper all of a sudden. He also gave away that most of the night scenes were shot day for night, so no wonder the night scenes were clearer than in The Hunger Games. It wasn’t actually night at all! Jacobson often brings up changes that needed to be made to covey things cinematically and I question her assessment. Many of the things she noted have been conveyed cinematically before, things like thirst and starvation, so it ought not to have been an insurmountable challenge requiring a change in the adaptation of the novel.
The menus do a fun job of creating the world of The Hunger Games also, taking us into Panem via animated menus. The standard boilerplate warnings are given a Panem twist to make you feel like it’s President Snow forcing you to watch other Lionsgate trailers and cautioning you that the opinions expressed in the commentary are those of the commentators themselves and not necessarily Lionsgate or their subsidiaries. Overall, a solid job on a standard new release Blu-ray, nothing breaking the mold but certainly not slacking off on a sure thing that fans will buy no matter what.