Review by Germany staffer Carla Pinilla, who saw ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ dubbed in German at the Berlin premiere on Tuesday, 11/12, and then saw it again in its original English version on Wednesday, 11/20. This review is spoiler-free.
As I type this review, I have watched Catching Fire twice. I hope that gives me some kind of measure of objectivity, but the truth is, I’m a very subjective audience; it’s not that I can’t distinguish aspects that are good and not-so-good in a movie, but in the end what sticks with me is how the movie overall makes me feel, whether I walk out of the theater with a smile on my face.
And this movie did that and then some! “Smiling” might be understating it a little—electrified to the point where I find it hard to sleep is more like it. Despite my attempts to keep quiet, I found myself going “Oh, God!” (in the good, fangirly, way) approximately every five minutes. Yes, even the second time I watched it. By the time the arena part started, I had to stop eating my popcorn because my stomach was doing somersaults. This movie is an emotional thrill ride, there’s simply no other way to put it.
The best thing about that roller-coaster feeling is that Francis Lawrence sets it up from the beginning. In the first scene, we open with Katniss feeling the weight of her previous Games on her shoulders, going through painful, heart-wrenching PTSD symptoms, and this does, for all intents and purposes, set a somber tone for the rest of the movie. Yet, at the same time, that very scene hits you like a punch to the stomach—enough of a shock to have the girl who was sitting beside me in the theater jump out of her seat for a moment. And things just snowball from there. I always thought Catching Fire was the very definition of the concept “just when you thought things couldn’t get worse for these people… they did,” and the pace of the movie takes that to a whole new level. The second half is, of course, much more fast-paced than the first half, but there is not one moment where it lags, there is not one scene that feels unnecessary or stretched out.
And this is also good because it allows them to give small, defining moments for each character; little details, which to a casual watcher might not mean much, but to fans of the books mean a lot. The script is very good at taking what in the books are several paragraphs, and distilling it down to one or two lines that are guaranteed to make us go “that’s it! That’s the character I know and love.” And what the dialogue doesn’t get to transmit, the actors themselves do with a look, a gesture, and the camera captures that perfectly.
This actually leads me to one of my favorite aspects of the movie, which was the cinematography. Granted, I’m not a film expert, but I can appreciate a good camera shot, particularly if the sets and locations are as amazing as they are in this movie. District 12 goes from a small village full of little dilapidated shacks with some people thrown in here and there, to a place that, while still in decrepit conditions, feels lived in; despite the fact that it’s winter, there’s the hustle and bustle of the population, which we didn’t really get to see the first time around. District 11 feels very vast, from what little we see of it, and if we thought the Capitol was grand in the first movie, we get to see a veritable metropolis in this one.
Even from the book itself, everyone could see that Catching Fire was much more sci-fi than the first installment of the series, and this is definitely reflected in the movie. Some of my favorite visual effects were the ones that were meant to come across as everyday technology for the characters but are still so new and inventive to us, such as the holographic screens. The horrors of the arena were incredibly well done this time around, and they blend in so seamlessly with the jungle locations it’s hard to tell they’re not supposed to be there in real life: the fog was chilling, the force fields were just as I imagined them from the book, but the highlight is definitely the monkey mutts sequence, which was simply astonishing. If I didn’t know for a fact that the monkeys were CGI, I would’ve thought they had trained killer baboons in that scene. They looked so real I’m sure they’ll produce many a nightmare in the younger audience, yet at the same time it’s like they plucked them right out of my brain.
But it was the focus on the characters that really drew my attention as far as cinematography goes. Francis’ style involves a lot of close-ups on the actors’ faces, which is something I appreciate, because with a cast of this caliber, you want to be watching them closely, you want to be able to see their every expression. It’s a daring choice, but I feel it makes the emotions all that more palpable.
And the cast was absolutely up for the challenge. At this point I feel kind of silly saying that Jennifer Lawrence was amazing—I mean, it’s Jennifer Lawrence; of course she was. But what’s really worth mentioning is that the events in Catching Fire allow her to show the entire gamut of her acting range. From abject terror, to utter desperation, deep-seated relief, to complete misery, we see so many facets of her. In fact, I think my favorite Katniss moments were the ones when she was angry. We had never seen her angry before, not really, and seeing Jennifer convey that to the point that Katniss seems almost feral at certain key points, it’s a thing of beauty.
One thing I really loved about the movie, though, was that while Katniss was clearly the center of it, it didn’t feel like Jennifer overshadowed everyone else, like it did at parts in the first film. That might be because Francis Lawrence took the time to step away from Katniss more than Gary Ross did. I know some people might miss Katniss’ point of view a bit, since that’s the way it was in the books, but for me it worked perfectly. I like Katniss’ point of view in the books, but as an avid reader and amateur writer, I can see how restrictive it is. Part of the appeal of adapting a book into a movie is that you can expand on the pre-existing plot, and you can work the potential that was there in the original work into something that enriches your experience of the story. Not to mention, if it gives them the opportunity to develop the supporting characters, who fans have grown to love just as much as Katniss.
As far as development and acting goes, my choice for stand-out is Elizabeth Banks as Effie. The job they’ve done fleshing out Effie as an actual person rather than just a vapid Capitol puppet was incredible, and you can really see her progression so clearly in this movie. She starts off as even more flighty and annoying than usual, if that’s even possible, but by the time the Quarter Quell rolls around, she’s breaking your heart in every scene she’s in. Her acting is flawless: you can feel her pain at sending two young people she loves to their deaths yet having to be “uppity” about it. Major kudos to Elizabeth Banks, she steals every scene she’s in and this time it’s not by hamming it up (though of course she wouldn’t be Effie without a little of that), but through genuine emotional weight.
My second stand-out is Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. Okay, okay, I’m biased because Peeta’s my favorite, but I’ve always been impressed by the way Josh can communicate all of Peeta’s emotions without even having to say anything; I see it all through his eyes. Much like with Jennifer’s Katniss, as Peeta takes more protagonism, we get to see more aspects of his personality, and Josh hits the nail on the head with each one. If I hear anyone complaining that Peeta is “weak” or a “sissy” after this film, I’m going to have to take arms; heck, Peeta is freakin’ Matrix in this movie. But it’s more than just including him in the action, because as much controversy as there was with the “manning him up” comments a few months back, he comes across as more than capable without losing the sensitivity that makes him Peeta. We see him be curt and even a bit cold, but it’s because he doesn’t like his relationship with Katniss being manipulated by the Capitol. We see a bit of his rebellious side come through, but it’s because he sees injustice and he can’t stand it. We see him participate in the big fight scenes, but it’s to save his own life and Katniss’s. And when the purely emotional scenes come through, that’s when he shines the most. One gaze, one frown, one word, one smile—he simply is Peeta, my Peeta, the one I fell in love with from the books.
Speaking of falling in love with him, as a consummate shipper I can’t not comment about how well done his relationship with Katniss was. It’s not overt, they’re not pawing at each other all through the movie, but the emotional connection clearly came across. Some of my favorite moments were the small ones. Katniss’s feelings particularly came through in the way she looked at him, for example, several times when he shows moments of incredible selflessness, she gazes at him like he’s absolutely amazing to her; such a simple thing, just her gazing at him, but I could see that she was beginning to recognize in him all the things that made me love Peeta. Another thing I also loved about this development was how well they worked in the arena: they truly came across as a well-oiled machine, a team. And every significant moment between them comes across as genuine; there’s no doubt whatsoever this time that she harbors deep feelings for him because the progression makes sense.
On the other corner of the triangle there’s Gale, and Liam Hemsworth was also a stand-out for me. I loved the minor changes they did to the District Twelve scenes as far as Gale goes, because they made things—dare I say it—even more intense than they were in the book. And Liam makes use of that extra intensity to the character’s benefit. He gives Gale the presence I’ve always imagined him to have, that way of demanding attention every time he walks into a room without even trying. He’s the strong-willed one, the one people look to when they have no idea how to proceed, but he also gets emotional moments, the moments when you see his pain at Katniss’ plight, and the way Liam delivered his lines produced a tug at my heart several times over. This is the Gale I was hoping to see, the Gale that became so dear to me through my book-reading experience.
The rest of the cast was, of course, completely on point. Woody Harrelson gets the best lines as Haymitch, and his scenes with Peeta and Katniss were some of my favorites. Willow Shields shows maturity beyond her years as Prim. Caesar Flickerman hams it up again, but this time he shows more of that Capitol agenda we only saw glimpses of in the first movie. Donald Sutherland was absolutely terrifying as President Snow, but my favorite scenes were the ones when he seems to be caught off-guard—as fantastic as it is seeing him acting like he’s in complete control of everything and everyone, it’s even more amazing to me when the situation is spinning out of his control and you can see the cracks in this carefully-built façade. Those were the moments that made me want to let out a cheer.
The new cast members are all so good, I feel like sending Debra Zane and her team a fruit basket. I will hear no complaints about Sam Claflin, ever, because I felt he embodied Finnick so perfectly, both in his arrogant Victor persona and on his more broken side. Philip Seymour Hoffman was appropriately duplicitous as Plutarch Heavensbee, and I can’t wait to see what they do with the character in Mockingjay. I loved Jeffrey Wright’s take on Beetee because he managed to be tech-y without seeming frail; even as he knows he’s not a match for anyone when it comes to the physical aspect, there was an arrogance to him I enjoyed because I saw it in the books as well. Mags was absolutely adorable, Wiress made me want to hug her every time she was on; they make you love them with such small moments.
But among the “new recruits,” the real scene-stealer was Jena Malone as Johanna Mason. Not only does the script give her amazing moments to work with, but she takes to them with gusto and dials them up to eleven. That girl has attitude coming out of her every pore, and it’s a joy to see her on screen. Whether it’s a funny scene, a tense scene, or an emotional scene, you just can’t wait to see what she will say or do next. Both the animosity between her and Katniss as well as her grudging empathy are well-played, and the latter is a nice setup for their tentative friendship come Mockingjay.
The best part about having such a talented cast is that no matter what the scene requires, whether it’s meant to be a funny scene (there are a few of those), a dramatic scene, or an action scene, they all subtly bring some of themselves into the characters, but none of them feel different than they should be. And this is in great part due to the script and how faithful it is. Some scenes are taken straight for the book, at times even line-by-line. Most of the time it works; there are a couple of scenes where it doesn’t. One particular scene, a small one, meant to be funny, felt somewhat out of place to me: as a fan I appreciate it being included because it was in the book, but as a member of the audience the sudden levity felt a little off from the tension we’d been built up to feel just moments before. But it’s a minor nitpick as far as I’m concerned. I believe the fans will be more than satisfied with the adaptation because it was clearly written with them in mind, honoring the source material in the way it should be honored.
The attention to detail I’ve already noticed makes me feel like I’ll be finding new things to fangirl about on each re-watch, and the exhilaration I get each time doesn’t seem to fade away. If I have to have one complaint, it would be that come the second half, it almost feels like they’re just pushing to go from climax to climax to climax. There’s hardly time to process some of the most important, character-building moments. Like I’ve said before, those little moments were fantastic, and as a result, all they did was make me want to see more: more of Finnick, more of Johanna, more of Beetee and Mags and Wiress. But I understand why we couldn’t get more. When it was announced they would be splitting one of the books into two movies, I was one of the people who thought it should’ve been Catching Fire. So much happens in this book, and you can only make the movie so long, so it had to be that way. But that’s as much of a compliment as it is a complaint, because when you get down to it, it doesn’t feel long at all, what was there was amazing, and I guarantee that those moments will hit you when you’re on the way home anyway.
All in all, I think this was a truly fantastic movie. Some people have asked me whether I liked it more than the first one, and I don’t know if I can even attempt to give an answer to that question—they’re very different, tonally; it’d be almost like comparing apples to oranges. But what I wanted from this movie was there: it takes the scope and the stakes of the first movie and magnifies them both for Katniss and Panem. It works effectively to connect the foundation from The Hunger Games to the outright war story we know we will get in Mockingjay. It’s not a standalone film by any means; it was intended as a bridging device, and makes no apologies for it. I’m sure there will be some people, particularly among those who haven’t read the books, that will feel a bit cheated by that, but as a fan, I’m incredibly appreciative that they made it that way, because that’s what the book was for me as well. And even knowing where the story was going, I find myself despairing that we still have a year to go before the next one. That’s the sign of a great adaptation, if I ever saw one.
To all of you who are watching the movie for the first time tonight, or sometime this weekend– and I hope that you are all planning on watching it on opening weekend– you’re going to love it, that’s for sure.