Which came first, Lady Gaga's fashion sense or the styling of Panem's residents in The Hunger Games?
Picking up shortly after their win in the Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to take their victory tour of the districts. However, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) warns Katniss that her actions have been seen as an act of defiance against the Capitol and have inspired many to rebel. She better convince everyone that her relationship with Peeta is real, or else. As the tour continues, civil unrest continues to escalate, and eventually Snow and new Head Gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide that Katniss needs to go. They throw a wrinkle in the next Hunger Games that the tributes will be picked from the existing pool of past winners. None of the past winners are wild about this and don't hide their unhappiness with the situation. As many of the past winners are older or have been out of the game for a while, alliances form as their best chance to survive in the games. If you've ever watched a season of Survivor, it's pretty much just like that, except with better hygiene.
When we do eventually get to the action, there's thankfully no shaky cam this time. One of the things that bugged me, and many of my friends, about the first was that many of the action sequences were ruined by shaky cam to the point where it was a little nauseating. I watched The Hunger Games again just a few hours before seeing Catching Fire to see if I was remembering it correctly, and it's definitely there. I have to give credit to director Francis Lawrence for this improvement over the first. The effects were a definite step up, too. With almost double the budget, you can tell a lot of it went towards improving the visuals. One scene that stood out was where the tributes face off against a pack of baboons that looked much more convincing than those rubber dogs from the first. Those things looked like the bad, mutated dogs from Ang Lee's Hulk.
It's a not a flawless affair though. The first hour's pacing is a little too slow. I liked the politics and story that was being set up, but more than a few times I felt like they needed to hurry up and get on with it. Also at 2 hours and 26 minutes, it's still way too long. This could have easily been edited down a good 10-15 minutes and not lost much of anything. It's not like I was bored, or was desperate for a bathroom break by the end, but these issues are really apparent considering that the structure is pretty much identical to the first film. In fact, if hadn't enjoyed Catching Fire as much as I did, I would have walked out of the theater saying, "I enjoyed Catching Fire much more the first time I saw it, when it was called The Hunger Games." It makes me a little nervous when I see that the final book is being split into two films. I know that's the cash grab these days, but I hope it's being done because there's actually enough material there, rather than stretching out the running time. Overall, I liked Francis Lawrence's direction and think the series is in good hands for the upcoming films. Anyone want the over/under at 5 hours for the total runtime?
The performances were a big improvement across the board as well. Josh Hutcherson seems to have matured a bit since the first film, and Jennifer Lawrence keeps getting better and better. I'm a little biased though, as Lawrence is one of my favorite female actors, period. An observation I had after the film is that while Hutcherson appears roughly his age, Lawrence feels much more mature than her age or appearance would indicate.
Woody Harrelson's Haymitch was much funnier and overall Harrelson felt more invested in the role. I thought that Elizabeth Banks showed a little more range with Effie, as you saw how she'd grown to care for Katniss and Peeta. I was a little bummed that Lenny Kravitz didn't get more screen time as he was one of the surprises of the first film for me. The PSH is always great, but we didn't get to see one of his trademarked outbursts. I also enjoyed Sam Claflin as Finnick, as based on his poster I wasn't sure what to make of his character going in.
Two of the biggest scene stealers were Stanely Tucci with his campy and a little creepy return as Caesar Flickerman, and Jena Malone's sarcastic and sexy turn as Johanna, a former winner who never passes up the opportunity to tell you, or show you, exactly what she's thinking. Malone and Tucci seemed like the two actors that were enjoying themselves the most.
Poor Liam Hemsworth. He's still suck in third wheel mode while his brother gets to swing around Mjolnir.
If there's any issue I had with the cast it was that Thad Castle (Alan Ritchson) didn't have more screen time, and at no point did he mention the need to bone some sloots. Such a waste...
On a side note, I know I complained about this in my Hunger Games review, but I still have a little bit of a hard time taking this seriously as I should with all the goofy, made up names given to these characters. There are guys named Gale and Peeta. Other characters with names like Haymich, Cinna, Katniss, Beetee, and Mags. Are these call signs from Top Gun? Where are all the Johns, Daves or Jennifers? I guess in the future, the winners were the people that name their kids stuff like Gunnar, Apple and Rumor.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one of the rare examples of a sequel that's better than its predecessor. It's an obvious comparison, especially coming from me, but this felt like the Empire Strikes Back of The Hunger Games series. With the exception of its length and some pacing issues, it's a definite improvement over the first. Fans of the first film should be very pleased with what they see this time around.
4 (out of 5) Death Stars