Release: Friday, November 22, 2013
After struggling to find a decent seat at a showing at 3 in the afternoon, it would seem I had seriously underestimated the frenzy that The Hunger Games had thrown the world into; although I thoroughly enjoyed myself despite all of my hesitations as I watched the original — the first of three adaptations of Suzanne Collin’s brilliant dystopian vision of the American future.
Given the surprising quality of the first, it should’ve been easy, then, to see how the forthcoming sequel would stir an even larger wave of enthusiasm ($25.3 million on Thursday night alone, to be precise). To put this ridiculous number in perspective, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the most successful midnight-opening in box office history, earned $43 million in its first wave of Thursday night showings. This film wasn’t close to topping that, but given the circumstances (this being only installment number two, rather than being the final chapter in an eight-film-long franchise, and also being a considerably more obscure story than that of that magical little wizard) I’d say the odds will forever be in this adaptation’s favor.
The dizzying numbers, which are projected to skyrocket internationally and over the course of this weekend, shouldn’t really come as a surprise either, because everything that made 2012’s The Hunger Games such an engaging and enjoyable experience is further refined and expanded upon in Catching Fire.
Purists are sure to find some fault in how some specifics of Collins’ novel may be overlooked, but a tremendous amount of credit must be given to both directors Gary Ross (who helmed the first) and Francis Lawrence because both films have proven to be incredibly immersive experiences, capable of standing on their own, touching on everything from simple teenage heartache to the complex morality play at work involving the politics of this new world we’re arrested into.
At the heart of Collin’s novels lies the disturbingly oppressive political regime that dominates all of what remains of a post-apocalyptic North America, which has now been divided into 13 districts, all presided over by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the Capitol. The Capitol is the central point from which all evil is derived in this compelling drama about choice versus destiny. One woman, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), dared to defy the pre-existing “rules” set in place by winning the 74th annual Hunger Games in the previous film using unorthodox methods. Because of her actions, two tributes (the people chosen from each district to fight to the death in these games) are left standing: herself, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Without explaining away too much, the circumstances at the time were certainly dire enough, and to think that Katniss would end up getting away with this act of defiance unscathed, well you’d be dead wrong.
Hence, where we are now.
Catching Fire picks up almost directly off the back of its predecessor by showing the two winners obliging in a ‘Victor’s Tour,’ where the pair will go around to each and every district and make themselves known as the (read: perceived) true symbols of hope throughout the land. Katniss, being the fiercely intelligent protagonist that she is, knows that behind this facade of fake smiles and ill-begotten honor lies something that’s truly worth fearing. The games weren’t exactly fun, but they indeed were just ‘games.’
As it turns out, President Snow is well aware of Katniss’ adaptability and of her rare ability to think for herself. In fear of a resurgence of spirit amongst the millions of downtrodden and hopeless residents of each district and the inevitable rebellion thereof against the Capitol, Snow makes Katniss aware of the hell she is going to pay for giving the good people of Panem hope.
The ensemble from 2012’s games return here in fine form once again. Elizabeth Banks turns in one of her most inspired role choices for the second time as Effie Trinket, someone who looks like she just emerged from Willy Wonka Land dressed up in attire that would make Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby costume designers jealous. Woody Harrelson is back as the supportive,
fun- alcohol-having Haymitch Abernathy, the survivor of the 50th Hunger Games; so too is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ costume designer and stylist; and Liam Hemsworth returns as the side-lined love interest for Katniss, Gale Hawthorne.
We are treated to newcomers, also: a pivotal character emerges at the culmination of the Victor’s Tour. Katniss meets a man named Plutarch Heavensbee (because they couldn’t find a less goofy name) who’s portrayed by the immensely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman, a casting choice that only cemented Catching Fire further as one of the year’s finest offerings. We also see new faces in new tributes, as a significant portion of the film is dedicated to the Third Quarter Quell — a special edition of the games in which a rule is changed. . . to make things interesting. To make the districts suffer for their previous insurgencies in the past. A cast this large and this inspired deliver terrific performances all around, giving the second elaborate step in the series an energy unlike any other.
But perhaps the strongest, most resonant aspect to the Hunger Games is also the same thing that drives the characters to do what they do: an incredible sense of fear. For us, it’s the fear of what we think may or may not happen to Katniss next (or for those who have already read the books, you know what is about to go down in some cases) — as the audience our fear is of the visual; but for the characters its a palpable fear of death, a fear of losing their loved ones, a fear of entering the hunger games again. Injustice, both physical and psychological, swells to nearly unbearable proportions in moments throughout Catching Fire. What Katniss, her fellow tributes and loved ones have to endure at times is painful, but it’s all attributable to the solid screenplay penned by Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy. The general brutality of the oppression is appropriately given an extra dose of severe in the sequel.
At the same time, one should expect some incredibly beautiful things to happen as well. As per the excellent writing, Katniss as the central figure simply defines the term ‘burdened.’ The consequences of the first film have increased the spotlight on her throughout Panem, and she’s caught the close attention of President Snow himself. The pressure has mounted for her to demonstrate her love for Peeta, convince the nation. As Haymitch observes, her private life has become [theirs]. Given the complexity of someone like Katniss and especially the psychological element at play here — the live-broadcasted television shows that feature a host (Stanley Tucci) too frightening for me to describe being the most illustrious moments of this aspect — this film handles it all remarkably well. Not only is the character allowed to develop far more than she does in the first, the intriguing premise set up by Collins’ novels blends smoothly with it, creating one of the most exciting films released all year. Nevermind it being a sequel.
All of the elements that made its predecessor the hit that it was is evident here, only amplified. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours in length, Catching Fire is The Dark Knight of Collins’ vision on paper.
Without a doubt, this is how you adapt a book into a film (says the guy who hasn’t read the books yet). Don’t worry, I will be shortly.
Recommendation: Francis Lawrence bats it out of the park in terms of appealing to genre devotees and general audiences alike. I believe at least three screenings tonight sold out at at least one theater in my area. The movie is set to produce near-record numbers after a weekend and expanded international release. Catching Fire is a movie you won’t be able to avoid, but don’t think of that as the groan-inducing kind of side-effect associated with something gone mad-popular, but more as a sign of appreciation for a film that got things right.
Running Time: 146 mins.
Quoted: “Let it fly.”
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