Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Cinema File #278: "The Hunger Games - Catching Fire" Review

The first Hunger Games proved to be a welcome new twist on the young adult novel turned film franchise formula, trading in sparkly vampires for post apocalyptic jack booted thugs and giving us a more clever and nuanced take on the spunky female heroine locked between bizarre forces and boy crushes. Having not read the books upon which these films are being based, I have been intensely curious to see how this series would unfold considering how self contained and complete the original film was, making Catching Fire one of the few big budget blockbusters this year that I've actually been fondly anticipating. Regrettably, while this second installment attempts to do what all good sequels do, tweaking the previously established rules and expanding the universe without straying too far from what has come before, the tweaks are often a bit too silly, the universe isn't explored nearly enough, and the final result is strangely both too different, and too much of the same.

Catching Fire follows Catniss and the guy who I thought was named Peter but is apparently named Peeta as they are forced back into the Hunger Games for a second year in a row after their celebrity status gives hope to the depressed masses and threatens the totalitarian rule of the state. In many ways, this sequel is everything that I thought I wanted it to be, or rather everything I believed I wanted the original to be, but with such poor execution that my perfect Hunger Games movie continues to allude me, and I'm beginning to question what I loved about the last one in the first place. We get more of the sci-fi setting outside of the games, more characterization for the other contestants in the games, and more depth to the protagonist as she now struggles with not just survival, but also the ever-growing pull of revolutionary fervor. Unfortunately, its all so hackneyed, ham fisted and half-assed that I can't take any of it seriously.

It doesn't help that it took me until the beginning of this film to realize that the white bearded President's name is Snow, making his diametric opposition to the "Girl on Fire" about as symbolically subtle as a Lee Daniel's picture. And then there's the presence of the games themselves, which it honestly never occurred to me they would actually go back to. I know the whole series is called The Hunger Games, but there's more to this universe than just that, and its structure as previously established suggested that we would be on to bigger and better things. And we would be if they didn't have a tradition of every 25th year being the wacky rule change up year where the pool of candidates is taken from past champions. What are the odds that every district would even have enough past champions to provide at least one male and female volunteer? They just barely manage with more than a few old people thrown into the mix (including one comically old woman who should have won like the retarded kid at the end of Cube), but then the presence of adults in the games seems to take something away from what this whole thing is about on a larger thematic level (specifically, a shameless ripoff of Battle Royale).

The problem isn't just the implausible way in which the games are re-introduced, but that the whole reason for them to be re-introduced seems to be to pad out the story and make us wait longer for the thing this series makes us want to wait for - the uprising. Through the whole movie I kept wondering if this entire narrative was just going to be Catniss' slow realization of her basically destined role as leader of the Resistance, and not only was that exactly what it was, but we don't even get the pay off for it because the movie ends on a bullshit to be continued note almost ripped straight out of The Matrix Reloaded (remember how much that pissed you off? Now imagine if it were in a slightly better movie!). Along the way we get much more of the love triangle nonsense that no one liked the first time, and much of the action inside the games is dominated by weird special effects elements like killer fog and (I assume robotic) monkeys instead of the raw kid on kid bloodshed that makes this premise so novel.

This is not to say that the movie is not entertaining, as much as its obvious and easily avoidable flaws continuously distract from everything there is to like. The often nausea inducing shaky cam has been toned down quite a bit so that even though the action is less impressive and more CGI enhanced, at least we can see it all pretty clearly, and across the board this film looks a lot better than the previous one. Again, the other contestants are actually given personalities this time around, albeit mostly stereotypical ones, and while I appreciated having more characters to work with, the team dynamic they fall into and the way the games abruptly end essentially takes away the reason for establishing these characters at all, since so few of them are ever placed at odds with one another, while the enemies continue to be faceless arrow fodder. The stage for the rebellion is set by the end, but all the clutter thrown in our path to get us there feels like time better spent exploring the world of Panam in greater detail independent of its love of violent sports and fascism.

Evidently Catching Fire is setting box office records for a November release, so it would seem that fans of the previous film largely disagree with my assessment, and maybe they're right. For all I know, maybe my expectations just got in the way a bit too much to enjoy it. I will say that for all my complaints, I barely felt the nearly two and a half hour running time, which in light of some other recent blockbusters I can name, is higher praise than it might sound like. Its not terrible, but it felt to me like a wasted opportunity to be so much more than it is, stuck in the woods with the same formula and perhaps too afraid to make any but the most incidental changes. The open ended conclusion promises bigger things to come, and there's still enough here to keep me coming if only to see how things will change now that they couldn't possibly play another trick to wedge in another contest, but all the promise and potential in the world doesn't forgive a lackluster middle section of what should be and easily could be an epic and satisfying story.

But hey, its still better than The Starving Games.

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