Whenever Judge Gordon Sullivan watches this movie series, he goes through five bags of popcorn.
Remember who the enemy is.
A joke went around between the first Hunger Games movie and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that claimed the franchise was actually utopian fiction because it portrays a future in which America only sacrifices twenty-four young people a year. It's a wry joke that points out both the difficulties of our current political climate (with more and more young people finding fewer and fewer opportunities) and the oddity of the central conceit of The Hunger Games. As with most jokes, there's a kernel of truth there, and that's that The Hunger Games has everything to do with our current political situation, and Catching Fire isn't afraid to borrow some of the energy and imagery of current political crises to help make the film feel relevant. It's a sequel that improves on its predecessor in every way, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Blu-ray) is top-notch.
Facts of the Case
It's been a year since the seventy-fourth Hunger Games had two winners: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, Red Dawn). It's their turn to go on the annual "victory tour" of the districts to show them that the Capitol still rules. In the intervening year the winners have grown apart, but they have to sell their love to their fellow citizens to not incur the wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, The Italian Job), who sees revolution in the air. It's not enough, and the seventy-fifth Hunger Games will bring many surprises.
The first thing I noticed about Catching Fire is how much better a film it is than the first Hunger Games adaptation. That's a weird thing to notice, since both films follow a very similar structure: start out in District 12, get to the Capitol, play in the Games, find a winner. The reason the first novel is so universally praised is at least in part because we spend the whole book in Katniss' position. We learn about the games through her. This didn't really make it into the first film—so much of the latter half of the film is Katniss wandering around the forest of the Games. Without that interior monologue from the book, I found the Games to be a total letdown. The beauty of Catching Fire is that Katniss now has Peeta, and the other members of her alliance, so we get a lot of reasons for her to discuss what's going on in her head, what strategy she thinks will help them survive, and how she's feeling (conflicted, usually). This makes the Games more than just an excuse for clever traps, and instead we can see them as a fight between opposing forces.
Though this strategy improves the Games sequences immensely, it largely helps the rest of the film as well. Katniss is no longer just the girl from District 12—now she has a conflicted love life, she's a symbol for a burgeoning revolution, and she has a true antagonist in President Snow. Gone are the largely anonymous contestants known only for their District attributes. This means that even though I didn't like the first Hunger Games, those who enjoyed that film will almost certainly enjoy the improvements here. Those improvements also extend to the budget and look of the film; we get more impressive CGI-based sequences, as when Peeta and Katniss arrive for the seventy-fifth games. The crowds are bigger, the Capitol more visible, and the world of the Games more believable.
One thing I can't knock the first film for is its casting. Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss, as is Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. The real stroke of genius was casting Woody Harrelson as Hamish, though. They're all back for Round Two, but this time we get newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee and a whole round of people as former Games winner's (special shout-out to Jena Malone as an unhinged fighter from District 7), all of whom really sell their role as former champions. The real weight of the film, for me, is carried by Elizabeth Banks. Effie Trinket is a fine enough character in the books, but in Banks' hands she's transformed from a slightly superficial assistant to the emotional core of the film. It's the kind of performance that will never get recognized at the awards shows, but it's brilliant.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Blu-ray) is also nearly perfect as well. For the most part the film was shot on Super-35mm, and the 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer simply brims with bold detail. Colors are spot-on, and black levels are deep and consistent. Then, once the Games themselves start, we are introduced to IMAX footage via a shift to a 1.78:1 presentation (those familiar with The Dark Knight Blu-ray will recognize the move). It barely seems possible, but the look improves during these sequences, with the dense trees and brilliant colors nearly popping off the screen. The visuals are matched by a DTS-HD 7.1 audio track that is one of the more immersive I've heard. Dialogue is always clean and clear, and the score has impressive dynamics. Once we're in the arena, the track does a great job of establishing space and keeping the sense of tension consistent as threats emerge from all sides.
Extras kick off with a commentary by director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, and the pair discusses a lot of production material, including the challenges moving between various locations. If that wasn't enough, we get a 144-minute making-of documentary that's conveniently split into nine parts. Just about everything you'd want to know about the making of the movie is included, from casting to production to special effects. We also get 5 minutes of deleted scenes, and a preview of dystopian teen adaptation Divergent. A DVD and Ultraviolet digital copy are also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not even sure what to complain about: Maybe the fact that the tie-in soundtrack is kind of bland? Or the fact that fans will probably want to pick up the Target-exclusive edition to get the 45 extra minutes of bonus features? Obviously if dystopian sci-fi-ish films aren't to your taste, then The Hunger Games may leave you cold, but for those willing to accept the kind of film this is, Catching Fire is near-perfect.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare beast: a tent-pole summer blockbuster sequel adapted from a young adult novel that incorporates contemporary relevance without feeling forced or wooden. Fans of the books and the first film will, of course, want to see this one, and even those (like myself) who weren't persuaded by the The Hunger Games will find every aspect improved in this sequel.
The odds are ever in its favor: not guilty.
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