The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review: Good! It stopped trying to be a Terrence Malick movie!

Hello. This is a Korean In America. Today, I got to see a preview of the Big movie of the winter. It is the sequel to the Young Adult book adaptation movie, The Hunger Games.  Let’s see if this movie matches the first.

When discussing a book adaptation movie, one’s relationship with the original source material needs to be established. I read the first book of the trilogy book series and I did enjoy it. It did not bring anything new but the characters and setting was interesting. With the second book, it was a rather different story. The advantage of the first book is that the scope was rather narrow. It was just a story about a girl caught up in this game who wants to survive. That was it. Only at the end, did any of her actions have any wider effect beyond her survival.

So, the faults of the book were less evident. I’ll talk about the books faults a little later down the line. However, with the second book, the scope of the story becomes wider in the area of politics. And, The Hunger Games series is not Game of thrones. Its grasp on politics is just below a junior high level. This becomes painfully evident. As a result, I stopped reading the books after the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  

The First Hunger Games movie.
I enjoyed the first movie as the best Young Adult book adaptation movie made at the time. However, it was not anywhere near the best movie of the 2012.  There are several reasons for this which has been widely discussed around the internet. Among them, the issue I want to mention lies with the source material.

The Hunger Games series in general is a combination of two main themes. First, it is somewhat of the coming of age story for this girl, Katniss Everdeen which, in the movies, is played by Jennifer Lawrence. As an teenager who basically had been traumatized for most of her life, it is about her actually coming to feel what she had been burying deep down. Second, it is about the whole fictional nation and its political setup which centers around the Games.

The best thing about the Hunger Games series is the first theme about Katniss Everdeen.

The worst thing is the second one.

Once again, the Hunger Games series’ grasp on politics is just below a junior high level. It is shallow and superficial. If your beyond the level of a college junior, the understanding of philosophy and politics in the books are beyond laughable and enters the realm of irritating.

In the first book, its philosophy and politics are primarily reflected via two things.

First, the setup of the universe. The setup of the universe is generally interesting in a campy soft sci-fi manner. Having a nation built around food shortage and the Games is a nice touch.

The second is the book’s use Katniss Everdeen’s inner monologues. This is where the problems with the book’s philosophy and politics become more of a problem. You have Katniss thinking about her life and experiences. During these recollections, some inner discussion about philosophy and politics come up. And what we get is what we would expect from a 14 year old. The good thing about the first book is that this is relatively balanced with her other emotional recollections which you also would expect from a 14 year old. So, the politics does not become an overriding factor other than just some intellectual pondering.

However, the fact that it is still there cannot be over looked. Thus, when making a movie, it has to be dealt with in some manner.

But, how do you represent this mix of juvenile views on politics and emotional turmoil of a young girl in a movie?

Gary Ross, the director of the first movie, tried to deal with this issue by going for a more poetic approach e.g. Terrence Malick. The moodiness, the color pallet, and even the shaky Cam cinematography style could be seen as an extension of this approach. Rather than describing anything in detail, the movie tries to make the audience infer these things from being shown the shadow of these things. It does not actually show you those things.

It can be said that it is a distortion of the “show not tell” rule of movie making.

In this way, first Hunger Games movie is not a really traditional adventure movie. The problem with the first Hunger Games movie is that this attempt failed and back fired. The first Hunger Games movie became a rather emotionally stiff movie with lots of hints but not enough clarity. However, the characters and the setting was enough to make the movie enjoyable.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
The second movie directed by Francis Lawrence is much more of a traditional adventure movie.

And that is the problem!

With the second book, more of the political stuff comes to the surface and it is bad! Katniss Everdeen is nowhere near capable of functioning in a wider political scope. But she is forced to and it is painful to watch because it is so laughable. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire movie has this to content with. And it fails!

There is far less intellectual pondering or reflection in the movie. While this may be a good thing as it was awful in the book, you still have the situation which was set up for those intellectual ponderings. In order for the plot to move and to get to the action adventure parts, you have to show those situations.

How is this done?

Gone are the moodiness, the color pallet, and even the shaky Cam. Now enter comic book over acting villains. It is funny that the so called oppression is laughable to myself who is not from the U.S. Everything felt small in scale. You have face less white stormtroopers rampaging through shanty town. And it is basically the same 10 men and 4 Humvees. It feels like a joke.

I heard a quote saying that Martin Scorsese makes movies about the mean streets he grew up in. Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand, makes movies about the mean streets seen in Martin Scorsese’s movies.

It is the view of oppression by somebody who has never been oppressed in their lives. I was very young during the tail end of the military dictatorship in Korea. But I’ve seen worse things happen than in this movie.

Police beating up protesters.
Protestors getting killed by being accidently hit by tear gas canisters.

This is all executed in the basic Hollywood style which makes it really tedious. And this lasts for about 70 minutes in the beginning of the movie. You are just there waiting for the movie to get to the games.

And the games are fun!

Thank god for the games!
The games are different from the first movie. Rather than being all “Battle Royal”, it is more survive from the environment type movie. This is because the main adversity is no longer the other tributes but the stuff the game maker tosses in your way including crazy baboons.. or some kind of monkeys. Think the “Final destination” movies without the horror. You have interesting adventure movie type characters coming in and forming a team which lead to banter.

You know the traditional adventure movie stuff that Hollywood specializes in.

And Catching Fire does this pretty well! It is fun and fast paced. Once things start rolling, it does not stop.

What else can I say? It’s fun!

Once thing I have a problem with the games was with Jennifer Lawrence’s performances. Jennifer Lawrence is not one of the more emotionally dynamic actresses. She does snarky and slightly off well but cannot do brooding. This was a problem with the first movie. But, I think the Terrence Malick - poetic approach helped hid this. Now, Jennifer Lawrence is doing the same thing but in a more adventure setting. It works less well. I particularly do not like that she suddenly starts making out with anything that moves with a penis in this movie.

OK, that is an exaggeration.  But still…. The transition somehow does not feel natural.

After thoughts.
At the end, the Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a fun movie with a seriously tedious first 70 minutes. I wish they just cut everything in the first hour out but that would not work with the contrived overall plot arc for the next two movies. From the last few minutes of the movie, I get an idea of the next movies and get ready for really stupid and campy…

Go, see the movie!

Score: B+

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