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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Is Catching Fire the Empire Strikes Back of the Hunger Games series?

Improving on its already very good predecessor in every conceivable way, The Huger Games: Catching Fire only further establishes the Hunger Games as by far the best young-adult smash sensation since Harry Potter. I haven't read the Suzanne Collins novels on which these films are based but with adaptations this good, I don't particularly feel the need to - especially since most people who have read the books seem to far prefer the movies.

Enough people have ripped into the Twilight franchise over the years that it's probably unfair, redundant even, to resurrect that particular dead horse for another solid beating, but the Hunger Games' artistic success shows just how far short the Twilight series came to reaching its own goals. Mark Kermode, in his own, obviously superior review of the film notes that the success of the Hunger Games is in large part because Twilight paved the way and, though I hate to disagree with the good doctor, I can't help but feel that, though the Hunger Games should be viewed in context of Twilight, it's successful in spite of Twilight, not because of it.

Unlike many of the Twilight rip offs and wannabes that have largely fallen by the wayside, the Hunger Games has challenged Twilight commercially, while far exceeding it in terms of critical and audience reception. The way it's done this hasn't been by copying Twilight but in almost all cases going in entirely the opposite direction. Both films have at their centre already iconic female heroes, but while Bella Swan was noted for her grating passivity and penchant for spending literally months moping over her unbearably drippy suitors, Katniss Everdeen has been created much more in the mold of Buffy Summers, as a tough but vulnerable - not to mention flawed - young woman who understands that her own love complications are secondary to the crushing, world-changing responsibilities that weigh down on her.

This is especially true in Catching Fire as Katniss finds herself elevated from mere survivor to virtually a messianic figure whose every move can cost innocent people their lives or lead to a revolution that will topple the fragile totalitarian government that oppresses them. Katniss does have to deal with her feelings towards Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemswroth), but they place a definite second place in comparison to the reality that while she may not be quite as done with the Games themselves as she might have hoped, she somehow became someone who holds the very future of her people in her hands.    

As oppose to what was obviously the case with Bella Swan and Kristen Stewart (Stewart is a limited actress, but she is far more talented than her most famous role ever suggests), Katniss Everdeen gives Jennifer Lawrence plenty to work with and she reminds us in no time at all that she is as brilliant in this major Hollywood franchise as she is in the smaller works that have gained her plenty of awards attention in her very short career so far. Again, unlike Twilight, she is supported by one seriously impressive cast of character actors in top form (Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone - I can go into how great each of them are but, really, who has the time?), but this is Lawrence's show all the way.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this and Stephanie Meyer's dopey series though, is that the Hunger Games keeps its genre trappings front and centre. With classics like 1984, the Running Man and Battle Royale making up much of the Hunger Games' basic DNA, it's easy to accuse the series of blatant unoriginality but, aside for the fact that that overlooks the reciprocal and cyclical nature of science fiction itself, that does a great injustice to both how well the Hunger Games plays with those generic conventions and how it introduces the idea of dystopian science fiction as a reflection of our own world to younger viewers.  

As for the dystopian science fiction plot, without giving too much away to people who haven't read the book, the film is once again divided into two parts, with the first mainly dealing with the world of the Hunger Games and the second dealing primarily with the Games themselves. The familiarity of the structure though, doesn't take much away from the overall experience as the first part of the film is far more intense with class relations between the Capital and the Twelve Districts reaching a breaking point, while a certain plot development means the Games themselves are radically different, both in terms of who is competing and what their ultimate objective truly is.

Despite the change in director from Gray Ross to Francis Lawrence, Catching Fire matches and surpasses both the action from the first one and the eye-catching visuals that contrast the gaudiness of the Capital with the earthy bleakness of the Districts. Once again though, along with the thrills, great characters and striking visuals, we essentially have a tale that has something to say about class warfare, reality TV and the exploitation of children.

Star Trek Into Darkness may still be my favourite big Hollywood blockbuster of the year, but with its mix of smarts, (dark) laughs, thrills, romance, tragedy, fist-pumping triumphs and a killer cast, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is easily the best. It does admittedly suffer slightly from a certain amount of storytelling murkiness during the Games themselves but this is not enough to take away from everything that the film gets gloriously right.

P.S. Can I just say how great it is to see Jena Malone back on our screens, especially in as wonderful a role as the snarky and all round thoroughly awesome Johanna Mason. If Jennifer Lawrence wasn't as great as she is, Johanna would have easily stole the whole film from under Katniss. As it is, she very almost did.

And P.P.S. I was originally only going to give this an eight but after having loved it even more the second time, I couldn't help but up the rating to a pretty damn impressive...

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