BAPTISM BY FIRE: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review

When we last left Katniss Everdeen, she and her faux beaux Peeta were beginning their victory lap around Panem, marketing themselves as star crossed lovers under the heel of the totalitarian Capitol in order to quell imminent dissent. As she tries to suppress her true self to maintain appearances and keep her loved ones safe, Katniss begins to unravel at her bowstring seams as Panem dissolves from a totalitarian tapestry into a patchwork proletariat quilt shoddily held together by jack-booted stitching. So, was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire like bottled lightning, or what happens during an afternoon at a two star brothel? What are you waiting for? Read it now.

The beauty of the second book of The Hunger Games Trilogy is in its world building, as Katniss and Peeta go on a victory tour of Panem. We only saw fleeting glimpses of the other tributes in the first film, as Katniss was more focused on her own journey as a tribute, ultimately not knowing the names of several tributes by the film’s end. So in Catching Fire, the book, we spend a vast majority of its pages reflecting on past victors, what each district produces, and even refugees from other districts as we get an idea of what Panem is like outside of District 12 before we can get to the real meaty bits of the story.

The movie turns this sequence into a montage, and it is certainly for the better, because the filmmakers, just like the game masters of the Hunger Games, know what we want, and give it to us.

Compared to the book, Catching Fire the film hits harder, moves faster, and won’t let you catch your breath for an instant as it throws monkeys, machetes and alabaster storm troopers in your eyes like a handful of pocket-sand. The main problem, or rather the only problem, with the book was in it’s pacing. With the film: not so much.

Now don’t get me wrong, ramping up the pacing isn’t a formula for making a good movie adaptation — see Ender’s Game as a good example of this. Or don’t actually, it’s just cinematic Spark Notes and the trailers give away the ending. But what Catching Fire does is remove all the fluff and waiting for the Games, leaving behind a well-toned and spooky-awesome corpuscular death-machine.

Since winning the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, a crazy-good at being crazy Jennifer Lawrence, has become a bit of a firestarter — as in she’s a punky firestarter like The Prodigy song, not a pryokinetic, like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter— as her defiance of her dystopian overlords, headed by a properly serpentine Donald Sutherland as President Snow, had bred dissent amongst the twelve Districts.

With Peeta (a flawless Josh Hutcherson) in tow as her tactical boyfriend, Katniss forces herself to glob on the mushiness for the fans; encroaching upon dystopian Kardashian status in order to protect her loved ones. But in proper Stockholm syndrome, Katniss starts to realize that allies in combat make for good combatants in bed for PTSD-sprinkled nights.

PTSD is actually one of the common motifs throughout the film, as the roster that makes up the Quarter Quell, a sort of bonus round in The Hunger Games maxim, is comprised solely of former victors from each district.

Just as Katniss and Peeta have their own war stories of victory, each tribute-victor is a vignette of a unique form of cleverness, brutality, or just plain apathy.

On the plus side for us spectators, this Quarter Quell roster translates into 24 victor-tributes who have already cut their teeth in what is basically The Real World: Thunderdome, making for personalized weapons caches and hardly a throw-away kill.

Speaking of teeth, the tribute from district 8, Enobaria, has filed down her teeth into a maw worthy of a Mortal Kombat fatality, or at the very least a few late-night profile views from King Shark on OKCupid.

Enobaria is but a mere side note however, as the more notable tribute-vets include Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin who is living proof that time travel exists, as I swear this guy is just a time-hopping 1980s-era Matthew McConaughey. Being shirtless is one of Finnick’s major character traits after all.

Protip: When searching for pictures of Finnick, keep safe search on.

Protip: When searching for pictures of Finnick, keep safe search on.

On the surface, Finnick is just the prime Philly of the Capitol’s Tribute stable house, with thrusting weapons being his specialty. Beneath the frosted hair though, Finnick is just another innocent trying to cope with being the standard-issue plaything of the Capitol with a penchant for throwing tridents at people’s faces. Essentially, he’s retiarius if a retiarius weren’t lame. Just as The Hunger Games was partially responsible for a resurgence in archery, I predict we will see tridentry (tridentery? Tridenting?) gain popularity in Catching Fire’s wake.

Speaking of thrusting, Thor’s little brother and the owner of the “wrecking ball” in Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” Liam Hemsworth, returns as the boy-next-door meets anarchist hunter, Gale. In The Hunger Games, you can’t help but feel a twang of pain when Gale is literally left out in the cold, forced to string his bow all by his lonesome. That twang only blossoms into a brown garbage rose of platonic relationships, as Gale is forced to watch the girl he loves make out with some baker boy in daily propaganda feeds. No, really, they’re mandatory.

Honestly though? You could give a damn about Gale by the end of the film. While Gale must resort to stealing a kiss from Katniss, Peeta volunteers to be sent into the friend zone for the sake of Katniss’ happiness, and only wins you over as the body count rises.

Maybe I’m just nitpicking here, but I also thought that Liam Hemsworth’s screams could’ve been just a little bit more. At one point Finnick screams like his girlfriend just dropkicked his PS4 and Katniss has a symphony of squeals for every stabby occasion, but Gale just sort of yelps at the cat-o-nine-tails. His back is all tender and raw sure, and the delightful new head Peace Keeper Commander Thread (Patrick St. Espirit) is something out of a henchman handbook but Gale’s cries just seem kind of ill-matched.

I’ve been thinking about dudes for way too long. Fortunately, they did spot on casting with Johanna Mason, human chainsaw and my favorite victor-tribute of the film, played by the perfectly crazy-eyed Jena Malone.

Johanna Mason resized

Am I staring into her eyes, or are her eyes staring into me?

Hair highlighted with a splash of red to match her blood-caked battle axe, Johanna serves as the badass warfighter foil to Katniss’ crumbling huntress. While Katniss can hardly function after her victory, too unnerved to even kill a turkey properly, Johanna refuses to shed crocodile tears for the camera, replacing them with some well-stringed expletives and throwing axes.

Actually nearly all of the casting is spot on, with the engineering Tributes from District 4 standing out in particular. The phenomenal Jeffrey Wright appears as the scary-smart Beetee, while former Honey Bunny/Yolanda Amanda Plummer plays the ECT-deficient Wiress, whose brilliance slowly unravels as the brutality of the Games ramps up, not unlike a stick-up botched by a jerri-curled Samuel L. Jackson.

Whereas in the book, Katniss and Peeta’s re-entry into the Hunger Games is treated as a huge twist, the film all but rushes to get us back into the arena, because let’s face it, that’s what we came here for.

First off, I get it. I used to think that The Hungers Games was just Battle Royale light, but then I realized I was comparing sharks and bears, not apples and oranges.  Battle Royale focused more on being forced to kill your friends and classmates. Hunger Games was more about adults getting off to kids fighting to the death and going through Wipeout!-esque environmental challenges, except in the place of hilarious fat people in spandex flopping off rubber battlements, it’s doe-eyed moppets taking swords to the face. Catching Fire, however, seems to be dealing with the horrors of war… sorta like Battle Royale II, but good. Really goddamn good.

Incidentally did you know that they’re making a Hunger Games Theme Park? Which you just know, properly missing the point as per marketing maxim, will have a simulated Hunger Games experience, likely based in part on the new arena featured in Catching Fire. Let’s just hope they’re well insured…

Now without spoiling too much– this new game board, run by new Gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, sporting the most neutral voice in the history of beige, replaces the fireballs and dog muttations (sic) of the first film with the smoke monster from LOST, portable tsunamis, and goddamn hit-monkeys.

In all honesty, I’ve always considered The Hunger Games to be the paradigm of casting. It’s impossible not to hear Jennifer Lawrence’s voice in your head when reading the books. Now I find — hopefully this isn’t demonstrative of a very down-to-earth girl-next-door based type of schizophrenia — Woody Harrelson has the drunken master Haysmitch style down to a tee, and Lenny Kravitz both defines Cinna and yet rebrands him as his own.

Fortunately, this casting proves to be fire-proof, as Katniss’ supporting cast gets to flex their wings and serve as the comedic and emotional backbone for Katniss at times to balance out all the crazy. We understand that Haysmitch’s alcoholism is actually somewhat endearing, as he sneaks some antiseptic into his coffee or Katniss steals a few swigs of his hooch for herself.

The Hunger Games are a reflection of our very selves. The Capitol citizenry in their neon hair, dyed skin, Frankenstein lips, foppish hair, and general Minajesque motifs are just the natural progression of the cultural zeitgeist. Hell, Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci is Dick Clark basically, but with the worst/best pony-tail veneers combo I’ve ever seen. The heavy reality TV-elements of the victors and the celebrity status of former tributes is essentially a realistic version of Celebrity Death Match.

Hold up. That would make a dope movie. Throw James Franco, Tom Cruise, Betty White, Ke$haSean Bean and Dwayne Johnson into the jungle with some random weapons sprinkled with some gallows humor in the same vein of This is The End and you got yourself 1B USD opening weekend, Hollywood.

We’d like to think that we’re better than the Roman douches who would flood arenas with tigers, slaves, guys with big stupid nets, and sometimes literal floods just to have natal battles, but in reality we’re just as terrible.

For instance, the cross-promotions featured for this movie were all likely made by individuals who have never seen Catching Fire. To wit, Cover Girl has released a limited edition cosmetics line shouting “Get the Capitol look!” Juxtaposed with images of models dolled up in tributary make-up or general Capitol foppish homage. To recap– if you want to look like an asshole from the future who actually utilizes vomitoriums, and no, I’m not talking about large hallways, and gets cosmetic surgery to look like a cat-person, get the Capitol look today!

Cover girl resized

Incidentally, most of these fashion designs are embodied by Elizabeth Bank‘s ineffable Effie Trinket, who is rightfully given ample screen time that properly embodies her grandiose nature. For all the laughs she produces, Effie remains a tragic figure however, as her saccharine smile and cotton-candy wigs make for terrible camouflage as the pain in her eyes betrays her deportment.

Of course there are going to be some differences in this adaptation. The first film made some understandable omissions– Katniss doesn’t have to search for a source of water for long and doesn’t get the sedative supply drop for the sake of moving the story along, but of course there were also questionable omissions as well. Cato’s golden body armor that made him nigh-invincible near the end of the games, or any actual mention of the Avoxes– the mute slave-class of Panem–although you do see them briefly in the apartments, and Catching Fire is no different.

There is also the subject of Peeta’s leg. In the books, even though Katniss is able to retrieve the medicine for Peeta in time from the cornucopia, he still loses a leg due to the infection, which is replaced with a handy prosthetic. Since this is the future, this prosthetic doesn’t require a cane, and is essentially a mecha leg from my understanding of it. In the first film, Peeta doesn’t lose his leg, which received a lot of complaints from loyalists; however I honestly believe this change is a good one.

Consider, if Peeta loses his leg to the infection, then that means that Katniss’ gamble of going to the cornucopia by herself wasn’t nearly enough, as in spite of the risk she still didn’t act quickly enough. While it reflects how much Peeta has given up for Katniss, we have no doubt through Peeta’s actions and words that he is more than willing to give everything up for her. Second, Peeta’s artificial leg only affects him by making him slightly slower when running.

The latter significance of Peeta’s amputation only comes up once in Catching Fire, in a scene where Katniss’s party forces them to split up temporarily. In the book, the explanation is that Peeta can’t maneuver the jungle as well with his leg. In the film, no real explanation is given for why the two have to split up, and this actually works better, as this blatant withholding of information makes you become shockingly aware how little we should trust these other tributes.

Other omissions and changes do not affect the story in the slightest, giving us instead a faster story that hits harder due to lack of inertia, properly reflecting Katniss’ shell-shocked mentality.

For example, in the book, the fence around District 12 is supposed to be huge and surrounded by trees, and with the government cracking down on the Districts, Katniss briefly finds herself stuck outside of a suddenly electrified fence.

Do you really want to waste ten minutes watching Katniss figure out how to climb over a fence? Hell no. For this same reason, Gale isn’t arrested for shooting a turkey, but tackling a peacekeeper. Awesome.

Every omission helps the story move faster but leaving nothing huge out. Blatant neon signs of foreshadowing are removed, and even though the mute slave-class Avoxes aren’t mentioned, there is this one…. disturbing scene that I believe involves them. In the scene, Katniss and Peeta are talking strategy with Woody Harrelson’s Haysmitch, and in the background is this girl just standing there, with this weird sort of spider web masking tape mask thing on. No one addresses her, and she’s not just some extra, as the scene is blocked specifically to point out her presence. Now that I think of it, I have no idea what the District 12 vets were even talking about, couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Ultimately, compared to The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a darker tale focusing less on surviving in the arena and more on surviving with survivor’s guilt, replacing the quiet stalking of Katniss with a band of temporary allies bursting with banter, gallows humor (or rather stockade humor) and goddamn tridents to the face. So what would I give The Hunger Games: Catching Fire on the awesome scale? A time-traveling Batman pulling you out of the SATS to help him fight hipster-zombies on the moon with bat-lightsabers while Gandalf gives you covering fire as “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris (featuring Florence Welch) inexplicably plays on in the background in spite of the fact that there is no sound in space.

Of course this is just one Hunger Games fanatic who is probably going to volunteer as tribute the second that theme park is up and running, so what did you think? Should Catching Fire been called Fumbling Hot-Pockets? Who was your favorite tribute? Where can I buy a trident? Let us know in the comments! 


About the author

Chris Davidson