So in keeping with my unofficial and spontaneous tradition, on Thursday I saw the new Hunger Games movie on opening night. As with before, Catching Fire was played to a packed house... and didn't disappoint.
In the time since Katniss and Peeta (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutchinson) won the last Hunger Games, they've had to live in isolation as a fake couple. Their contrived romance from the first movie -- done solely to keep each other alive -- as well as their open defiance to the government, has inspired outbreaks of dissent across Panem; so much so that open revolt is all but inevitable. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has threatened to wipe out Katniss and Peeta's hometown if they do not subdue this with their "Victors' Tour", but when their appearances only inspire more defiance, and with it more brutality, Snow concocts a new tournament: Katniss and Peeta are forced to compete with past competitors from the last 25 years of the games, and if they survive their district will be wiped off the map.
While the storyline is relatively thin, there was a lot going on in this movie, in terms of subtext and commentary. One of the things I loved about the previous film was its jab at reality TV. In this one, it's dialed up to 11; not only are Katniss and Peeta basically doomed to live a false romance for the rest of their conceivable lives -- even having to fake a marriage -- solely to placate the masses, but every last victor we have ever seen from these games has serious mental damage. Unlike the previous story, Suzanne Collins' inspiration of a clash between Survivor and Iraq War coverage actually makes a sick amount of sense, as these "best of" games are effectively forcing badly wounded war veterans to back into another battle, and the whole thing is treated as a game show.
So, long story short, I loved how the characters' actions throughout the story are basically designed to be a giant middle finger to Snow and the society he nutures.
There really isn't much more that I can say, to praise the movie. The story is very tight (if a bit rushed), the action scenes better, THEY GOT RID OF THE DAMN SHAKY CAM FROM THE FIRST MOVIE, and the characters have visibly evolved from the previous movie. This is particularly evident with Effie (Elizabeth Banks), who gradually acts like... well, a real and thoughtful person... as it really sinks in what these games are making people do (by the way I also like that they didn't really preach about this to the audience). Even Peeta, who came off as a bit of a wimp in the first one, shows some steel and smarts the sequel.
There are really only two criticisms that I can make. First, I don't particularly care for Liam Hemsworth as an actor. It's not like his readings are inhuman or anything, but they aren't particularly engaging, either (not helping is that he's never had anything to do in either of the movies released so far). The other is one that was suggested to me by Andrew Carter; the movie has PTSD as an element among the survivors -- Woody Harleson's Haymitch is an alcoholic, some of the other victors are said to be substance abusers, others still are visibly traumatized or psychopathic, and even Katniss is shown to have flashbacks in the first three minutes of the movie -- yet they really could have done more with it. One of the few things that the first movie did better than this one, was that the final minutes before the games actually start are REALLY suspenseful, and you can see the plain terror among everyone as it becomes all too real what they are about to do. This movie -- despite having a cast of competitors that has been through it all, with scars to prove it -- just seems to brush it off as if it's... well, a Bond movie.
But those gripes don't take away from a pointed and thrilling movie, with fantastic twists and a shocking ending. Don't miss it.