By CALVIN PATTEN
Hunger Games: Catching Fire was a delightful surprise. Magnificent in scope but fine in detail, Catching Fire, based on the book by Suzanne Collins, is much more than another tween bestseller turned into a movie. Instead, it raises the stakes, bringing in the heady morass of morality and revolution, death and rejection. Lead by an excellent cast, the capable directing of Francis Lawrence and impressive aesthetics, Hunger Games captivates and engages the audience on a level that most movies, adaptions and otherwise, fail to reach.
Catching Fire is set in a future dystopia in a country called Panem — an assembly of 12 hard working districts and a lavishly wealthy Capitol. In case you’re new to the series, The Capitol annually organizes a “Hunger Games,” a fight to the death competition between two contestants from each district. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) won the previous Hunger Games, and at the start of Catching Fire are forced to embark upon a victory tour by the cruel President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who is concerned that Katniss’ defiant victory is inciting revolution among the people. With the victory tour failing to deflate her stature as an icon for an uprising, Snow decides to call a special Hunger Games, composed entirely of past winners.
This is not to say that the time spent in the arena is not also fantastic; it simply holds less gravity. I did enjoy the novelty of the arena design, something that has to be credited to Collins, who wrote a book that is an ideal framework for a movie. However, the actual sequence within the game is relatively predictable. It also lacks the acting dynamism present in the other scenes. This is not necessarily a fault of the actors, but during the game scenes they simply have flatter, less interesting characters. One notable exception is the work of Jena Malone as Johnana Mason. Malone is sultry, spicy and defiant, lending some flair to an otherwise largely static group.
The absolute star of this movie though is Jennifer Lawrence. She brings so much complexity and humanity to Katniss that one immediately feels attached to her. Her simple pout is perfect — it is somehow simultaneously vulnerable and defiant, confident and terrified. Every movement, every facial expression is calculated, but never robotic. She acts with an energy that is almost exhausting, leaving me frayed by the end of the movie. It is incredible that Lawrence not only understands the depth of Katniss, but that she can portray it. I suspect this is a result of her having entire novels to consult, allowing her to condense and purify Collins’ vision, along with her own, into a remarkable character. The depth and the ferocity of Lawrence’s acting makes this more than just a means to lure fans of the book into buying a ticket — she makes it a film.
She does not do it all herself, though. Lawrence is surrounded and assisted by a variety of mature, fantastic actors. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Game Designer Plutarch Heavensbee and Sutherland (President Snow) are fantastically despicable people, but never approach farcical. Young actors Hutcherson (Peeta) and Liam Hemsworth (Katniss’s love interest Gale Hawthorn) both perform admirably, with Hemsworth almost matching Lawrence’s passion. Elizabeth Banks portrays the ludicrous Effie Trinket, Katniss’s chaperone, perfectly allowing the character’s misgivings about the current situation to resonate under the overtones of superficiality. And finally, Woody Harrelson (alcoholic mentor Haymitch Abernathy) is charming, sarcastic and fun, lending some comedy to an often dark movie.
The actors all reap the benefits of a vivid, rich setting and environment. The costumes in every scene are incredible, beautiful and extreme, with costume designer Trish Summerville drawing inspiration from current designers like Alexander McQueen. Francis Lawrence also takes great pains to show us the setting, whether it is the grandeur of the capital or the unencumbered overgrowth of the Game’s arena. And notably, the music, with contributors including Coldplay, Christina Aguilera and Lorde, is wonderfully done, working well with the actors and perfectly setting the moods and tones of the movie.
Ultimately, despite being a being a bit long (146 minutes), Catching Fire is absolutely worth fighting through the hordes of teens to see. Virtually every aspect of the movie is well done, and some of the scenes and acting are legitimately inspiring. This movie, the fantastic performances included, will probably be completely overlooked by an Academy that consistently undervalues science fiction/fantasy, but this does not mean it was not one of the more enjoyable watches of the year.