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Review: ‘Catching Fire’ – Slow Burner To Blazing Finale

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Review by UK staffer Ciara McIntyre, who saw ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ at a press screening last Friday. This review is spoiler-free.

The camera sweeps over the icy, snow covered forests of District 12 in silence. Katniss crouches beside the still lake her father and her used to visit. A close-up of Jennifer Lawrence’s face. It’s impossible to look away.

Perhaps, the most effective and startling moment of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire happens within the first 3 minutes. A moment that contains such horror and shock that Francis Lawrence has perfectly encapsulated how the 74th Games not only haunt Katniss but haunt her in an irreparable way.

Whilst the Capitol is filled with colour, sound and delirious citizens, Katniss and Peeta step forth to greet the intrusive cameras but the cheering crowds have dulled. District 12 is freezing, silent and filled with nothing but overwhelming emptiness. None of this is real. It’s all perversely fake. Katniss and Peeta may have won the Games but truly there are no winners in the Districts. Only survivors.

This pervading sense of bitter chill inhabits every stop in the Victory Tour as a biting breeze hits their faces and their speech quietly echoes in the permeating desolation of the Districts. The Victory Tour montage is powerful and very effective in terms of alluding to the rebellion and drawing attention to the consequences of Katniss as a symbol. Standout moments are the stirring District 11 stop and a young girl giving Katniss flowers in an early District, who delivers a gut-punch line.

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The scope has widened, Panem is a bigger world and the focus has also extended from Katniss to include Peeta and Haymitch. Gale and Effie have also been moved closer to the heart of the story. It’s something that fans will appreciate as supporting characters are explored more fully. But something has definitely been lost with this approach. The Hunger Games was an immersive experience. Like the novel, we weren’t just watching Katniss: we were with her. With expert pacing and captured footage style, it was easy to become fully absorbed and involved in Gary Ross’ opener. The gorgeous cinematography, sweeping camera movements and very traditional editing of Catching Fire means it’s difficult to ever lose the sense that ‘I am watching a Hollywood film.’ Panem is certainly bigger but it is also much less intimate.

Francis Lawrence’s direction is by no means unfitting to the film. But it feels as though, for the uninitiated, thematic elements are touched upon but never really explored. Occasionally it feels like a surface re-telling as we plod from book moment to book moment to book moment. We aren’t on a Katniss walk through in the sequel. Apart from a few knock-out scenes, it’s hard to feel as intimately acquainted with the character. And I miss it. The horror, pressure and sickening entertainment of the Capitol felt much closer before than it does this times around. Between the Victory Tour and the 75th Games there is a conspicuous lack of tension that was so consistent throughout the first film.

In fact, after the Chariot rides through the Capitol, things take a very comedic turn. Two hilarious scenes follow one after the other with some highly amusing stunned Katniss moments. The scenes are a lot of fun and say a lot about the characters involved but tonally it’s a little uncomfortable… hang on, the Games aren’t supposed to be fun. In the book it worked because it was followed by the revelation of Darius that brought you crashing back down to earth in a Panem second. However the avox ommission leaves the levity hanging in the air. The scenes are not flawed in themselves but in the broader context seem misplaced in a story that is supposed to be so harrowing and dark. These tone and momentum issues continue until the Quell begins.

Perhaps, there is a chance I’m being unduly harsh. The Hunger Games was always graced with the faster paced source material out of the trilogy. However, it was also atop the pantheon of teen cinema and a thought-provoking piece of sci-fi. Catching Fire doesn’t have the same surprising and game-changing feel. In it’s place, the sequel is a big entertaining, fantasy blockbuster. It’s worth mentioning that as blockbusters go, the story alone makes it of a much, much higher caliber than other tentpole offerings this year.

The Hunger Games was incredibly faithful to the plot, importance and themes of Suzanne Collins’ novel. Catching Fire is something else entirely. Dialogue scenes and actions are frequently lifted verbatim from the text. Almost every memorable highlight of the book is not only included but is as identical as possible. In fact apart from obvious ommissions (example: Bonnie and Twill) it takes some serious diligence to locate important book moments that weren’t incorporated in to the film. So much so, that in one scene it seems as though Mr Lawrence is toying with fans, dangling an interaction between two characters in front of audiences with the most agonizing wait and hope for a fan favourite reply to be uttered.

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Slight changes appear but only to enhance the story. Scenes of District 12’s lockdown are most welcome (with a forceful performance from Patrick St. Esprit). More President Snow and Plutarch are added to the mix. There are new scenes written that will certainly get readers head-scratching. These scenes are certainly effective in establishing Katniss’ influence on the nation but say a lot more about Snow’s life outside of his presidency.

James Newton Howard’s score is once again perfectly fitting. Panem’s national anthem, emotional cues from ‘Rue’s Farwell’ and ‘War’ by Hypnotic Brass Ensemble all make a familiar and welcome comeback.

One of the biggest achievements of Catching Fire are the masterful performances. Once again, across the board, the entire cast are flawless. Philip Seymour Hoffman (unsurprisingly) is faultless. Less fanciful than the Plutarch of the books, the master plotter is in control at every moment. Stanley Tucci could easily have phoned it in but plays Caesar in spectacular fashion as he attempts to restrain Victors and subdue Capitol citizens. Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lynn Cohen never let their parts become caricatures, each one gives an expert and true performance. Special mention must be made to the greatest scene-stealer of them all. Elizabeth Banks is an absolute stand-out. Every single scene in which Effie appears she commands audience attention with engaging hilarity. The second she returns, I defy anyone to not crack a smile. From introduction to heart-breaking goodbye, it’s difficult to keep your eyes off Effie Trinket.

From Haymitch’s giggle-worthy description, to cocksure arrogance, from dangerous adversary to hidden depths. Sam Claflin covered all bases as Finnick Odair with subtlety and skill. The District 4 Victor was always a tall order and he was perfect. He not only did an expert job, Claflin breathes life in to the character straight from the page. The exact same can be said for Jena Malone whose remarkable performance is always on the verge of complete anger and ferocity. Malone is incredible. My original vision of the characters have been eradicated from memory, so perfectly do they embody and inhabit the characters of Finnick and Johanna in every scene.

At this point it would be so easy to glaze over commenting on Jennifer Lawrence. It’s like stating this film is in colour. This film has sound. This film has Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance is effortless and stunning. Interestingly, this may be her first performance in all of her work that really showcases her wide range: she’s cold, she’s broken, she’s brave, she’s hilarious, she’s heart-wrenching, she’s deadly, she’s overwhelmed, she’s drowning in despair, she’s engulfed in vengeful hatred. But it isn’t a showy this-is-my-Oscar-clip performance. It’s subtle, it’s stripped back, it’s genuine. Her Katniss is lost and crumbling under the symbol and expectation that is thrust upon her and Lawrence never misses a believable beat.

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Josh Hutcherson, once again, is the perfect Peeta Mellark. He may even have improved his performance with much meatier character development to sink his teeth into. Liam Hemsworth also steps up to the plate as Gale comes to the fore. One of the biggest reliefs is the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. The heart of the characters’ interactions are kept fully intact. Scenes in the arena are constructed and acted with such genuine, heartfelt sincerity. Please take it from ol’ cynical, eye-rolling me that I couldn’t detect one sniff of cheese. Reassuringly, their growing bond is true and uncontrived. Just like the novel, a cinematic audience will see a justified turning of the tide in Katniss. Scenes with Katniss and Gale are also communicated with heart-breaking conviction.

So, speaking of the turning of the tide. Tick Tock. There is an entire section of Collins’ novel in which a literal, verbatim translation from page to screen doesn’t hurt one single bit. An entire Part III if you will. Water laps over the camera lens, the powerful current pulling and engulfing the shot. The sprint to the cornucopia, the visible heat, the sounds of the 75th Hunger Games arena (a must see in Dolby Surround Sound) – finally, a truly immersive experience. Everything you loved from the final act of Collins’ story is not only included but kept so close to the original text.

Francis Lawrence’s larger scope and thrilling set pieces add so much texture (and terror) to the Games. But despite being so action heavy, it is still firmly rooted with the characters. It is so powerfully acted by all the victors as they battle through each arising horror, begin to solve the puzzle of the arena and the strange behaviour of other tributes. Character moments are played to perfection, gamemaker motivations are intriguing and an orchestrated chorus of horror is gut-wrenchingly exactly as it sounds.

As the film blazes towards the climax, excitement builds but it’s still the characters that take central focus. It is so engaging, heart breaking and empowering all at once. The poignant way in which Francis Lawrence assembles the thematic elements in the denouement is beautiful, poetic and what viewers sorely needed – meaningful.

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All in all, in cinematic terms, perhaps if it went a little more down the adaptation process it would have been a game-changer for the teen film like The Hunger Games felt. But there is something incredibly comforting in knowing that not only are all your favourite book moments included but that so many entire scenes are direct verbatim and told with staggeringly beautiful cinematography and perfectly pitched performances. This is a film for fans who want to see each chapter directly on screen and characters that are fully fleshed out and explored. It feels like less of a stand alone film, than a bridge between Games and rebellion. We see how haunted Katniss and Peeta are from the last one. We see the growing revenge and call to action for the next. It works well as part of a whole. For the uninitiated and unconverted, it is a big and very captivating blockbuster, well worth the price of the ticket but unlikely to inhabit the heart and mind.

But these people are of little concern to your average Hunger Games fan. If your favourite moments, plot and character relationships are contained within the pages of Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, then sit back, relax and enjoy. You can breathe a sigh of relief. This film was tailored for you. You will adore it and it will stay with you. Always.

You can read Ciara’s review of The Hunger Games here.

About Ciara McIntyre Archive

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