THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE REVIEW (GRADE: A-).
I won't discuss the storyline of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire here. If you've read the books you already know what's going to happen and if, like me, you're just taking the movies as they come then I don't want to spoil anything for you. Suffice to say that if you're not yet on board with this series, despite the horrific premise of “teens killing teens,” this is actually a profoundly moving morality tale about compassion and courage inspiring a revolution against tyranny and barbarism. As I've said elsewhere, the stories are actually anti-violence. Despite its popularity this is definitely not for children, but is powerful storytelling for adults and for teens willing to watch the films with an active mind.
Jennifer Laurence continues to give a dynamite performance as Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant heroine
whose bravery and selflessness has made her, against her will, a symbol of hope to the starving and bullied masses. Laurence is brilliant here, tackling with gusto a juicy character arc with which to showcase her skills. At its core, this particular story is about her journey from avoiding the mantle of responsibility to embracing her role as leader of the resistance.
All of the performances are excellent,
with newcomer Phillip Seymour Hoffman bringing nuance and mystery to his role, other new cast members crafting memorable characters, and returning players bringing considerably more to the table. Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci, in particular, humanize formerly cartoonish roles with some subtle traces of doubt and fear. Woody Harrelson, for his part, nicely transitions into a true hero while Donald Sutherland continues to be the villain you love to hate.
The most pleasant surprise of the film, for me, is that I actually got sucked into the love triangle, which I thought was the weakest part of the first film. Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson are both much better developed here, and Katniss' evolving feelings for each are smartly-scripted and well-played. New (to the series) director Francis Lawrence guides the story with a steady hand and confident pacing. The action scenes are thrilling (with almost no shaky-cam in sight!) and the visual effects are strong. The musical score is solid and the production design continues to be first-rate.
For better of for worse, the “hunger games” themselves aren't the primary focus of the story this time. After considerable buildup they end up feeling like a pit-stop in the larger story of the inevitable uprising against The Capitol. There's some real edge-of-your-seat moments and terrific character beats in this portion of the film, but the sense of imminent death that made the first film's games so intense isn't quite as palpable here. What's more, while the ending is mind-blowing, some things happen so fast that I'm still not sure they make sense (in the film; perhaps the book does a better job of explaining them).
No matter; this is The Empire Strikes Back of this franchise, expanding (and improving) upon the first film.
The stakes are higher, the performances are top-notch, and the increasing socio-political tension is engrossing. The film takes its audience on a highly emotional and though-provoking journey and sets things up nicely for a grand finale. I don't know if I can wait. I may have to read the books after all.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: The Hunger Games- Catching Fire is rated PG-13. There are two s-words and a pair of bleeped-out f-words. A young woman tells a young man that everyone wants to sleep with him and disrobes matter-of-factly in an elevator in front of three people (she hates her costume and wants it off). We see her back from the waist up and her front from the shoulders-up, but it's implied that she's naked. A young woman wears a dress with some cleavage. An old man is shot in the head just off-screen (we later see his body from a distance). A young man is strapped to a post and whipped with a cat-of-nine-tails after protecting an old woman from a beating (we see glimpses of nasty gashes on his back). In gladiator-style combat a person is killed by an axe to the chest, another is drowned, another stabbed, another bitten in the neck by a monkey, and another consumed by poisonous fog, though all of these are filmed and edited to avoid gore and lingering on disturbing images.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Love and hope are stronger than fear (2 Timothy 1:7; 1 John 4:8; 3 Nephi 4:7-10). We are morally-obligated to oppose corrupt governments, especially when they contribute to starvation, death, and loss of freedom (Alma 60:27-26). Our resistance should be through diplomacy if at all possible, but by force if necessary (Alma 61:10-14).