I can't really talk about this film without spoilers, but for those who haven't seen it yet...
Catching Fire was not only a significant improvement over its predecessor in the series in every way, it is a true testament that you can make a successful mainstream Hollywood blockbuster with a female main protagonist, a genuine heroine origin story, without it feeling contrived or being only relevant to a niche. To me, this was the first film adaptation of a book since Lord of the Rings that I found that balanced perfectly being faithful to the source material and changing bits to make it work for a film franchise, especially a Young Adult Fiction franchise, which I thought might have died thanks to Twilight.
You do need to watch the first movie to understand some of the characters and tensions, but that's pretty standard for modern film franchises, but I highly recommend you do so before checking this one out to fully appreciate the drama in this one. Go!
8.5 / 10.0
I really enjoyed this film because I really had no expectations for it given how mediocre the previous film was, despite receiving rave reviews from most critics. It wasn't another Twilight but it was no Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Heck it probably wasn't even in the same league as Chronicles of Narnia. But whatever reservations I think I had for the previous film I can safely throw them away because this film did all of them much better, and sometimes even did them right.
The exploration of various social and moral themes in this film was a lot more in depth and intelligent for any film. They continued the thread of social commentary on the wealthy upper class who in this film is clearly aware of the mistreatment and inhumane conditions other districts have to endure, but most choose to turn a blind eye and gorge themselves with nauseating amounts of extravagance and excess like the ancient Romans did.
They also explored reality shows, public life and the power of iconography through both Katniss and Peeta's (initially) pretend-only love story and the mockingjay symbolism. I really loved that masterful move by Peeta on the eve of the Quarter Quell games, where he has grasped the power he held as a celebrity, and how much influence he had when he told the audience while on stage that Katniss was pregnant. It was a deliberate parallel to how we react to our real world icons and public figures, how wrapped up we as viewers can be with the status of their 'private' lives.
I would say that this particular commentary is deep and intelligent enough as is, but the film actually took this concept a step further through the character of Johanna Mason, the female tribute from District 7 who verbally gave the middle finger to the audience on the eve of the games. I don't know how many would appreciate this, but she was the anti-celebrity. She was a character that should have been a wake up call that everything about these games is fake, but the audience chooses to ignore the reality and simply disregards her as the 'character nobody likes'.
If you use this framing to now look at how the capitol audience reacted towards Katniss's pregnancy, you might realize that they did not protest the Quarter Quell because they finally realized that it was an immoral and inhumane game, but because they didn't want to see their celebrity gone, they wanted to see her baby have the likeness of Peeta, the baby's first steps, maybe even have a chance to personally hold the baby themselves. They were still voluntarily trapping themselves in the illusion that this was a show, but it was a show that they cared about and wanting their main character to continue. And this is a pinch of genius that really impressed me. It was a long film, but for every scene they chose to leave in, it was loaded with deeper insights into the human condition that requires and merits a re-watch. Even if I'm reading too much into these subtleties, at least this film allows for such interpretations, which is more than I can say for so many Hollywood films!
Some other themes explored included the role of violence, the dichotomy of morality and survival, independence and interdependence, selflessness, and government control. All of these were explored in varying ways and to varying depths, but I think you should think about these ones yourselves and come to your own conclusions.
Apart from being deeper and more intelligent, this film was also a lot more sarcastic than its previous one, not just in the sense of the characters' interactions, but also the way it pokes fun at the previous film's weaknesses. In the previous film, Jennifer Lawrence's performance was highly praised by many critics, but honestly I didn't think she did that much to deserve it then. Her expressions were really limited to fear, sadness and indifference. But not this movie. This one she really shows off her dynamics through every possible emotion, adding to her character portfolio love, anger, contempt, melancholy, doubt, courage and hatred.
I think this is the first time I have seen a heroine story that really stood its ground, and was not only convincing, but also compelling, even in comparison with many other stories with male main protagonists. We've had a few decent female main characters such as Maggie Fizgerald in Million-Dollar Baby, Juno, Sarah Conner in the Terminator series, and to a lesser extent, Merida in Brave. However, I think this is the first time where the heroine is more than a character, but can be classified as a role model. If there is anything that can serve as an argument for gender equality, this is it.
At first I thought of her relationship with Peeta as almost a role reversal, since she is always the one in serious action and he's technically the damsel in distress in more than one situation, and largely being protected and cared for by Katniss during the games themselves. However, he did actually take charge and made some key decisions when it mattered. He served as not just a comforter but also a mediator for Katniss, who is often rash and hot-headed with her actions. This made their relationship a lot more balanced, and finally led to some on-screen chemistry, which surprisingly made both characters more two-dimensional and worth caring about.
The director's decision to end the film with 20 seconds of Katniss's face going through a wide range of emotions (after learning that Peeta was kidnapped and District 12 was destroyed) was a really daring way to say "our girl is now primed to take the character to the next level". I wouldn't say that ending worked for me, but I certainly appreciated how it really set itself apart from the other young adult fiction franchises in the past decade. It is unapologetically bold. It takes chances with its characters and isn't afraid of plunging its protagonists into the morally grey and fudging the archetypal roles they had in the previous film.
One last thing. While this film was rich in themes and commentary, it was far less about the games. And I am glad that they didn't make the games themselves the central focus of the film, but rather a necessary evil that sets into motion something bigger. However I did think that they could have cut even more scenes within the games themselves. The poisonous fog and the monkey attacks were completely inconsequential since the tributes fully recovers after each attack. They do lose the grandma in the process, but they get over it quickly enough and have basically gained and lost nothing from these game events. The only bits of the games that really mattered were forming the alliance with the other 'good' tributes and the lead-up to the rescue operation.
In fact, I am confused about why would President Snow still went ahead with the games, and televise them, especially when a sizeable number of capitol citizens who were already furious and against the games the night before. Since Snow was trying to prevent a revolution from taking place, wouldn't continuing the games despite so much protest be counter-productive to his goals? I guess he isn't really that smart a guy anyway.
I originally didn't want to do nitpicks, because I do like the film a lot and believe its major triumphs justifies some minor plot holes and problems. However, after thinking about it overnight I do realize some of the issues I initially overlooked are worth mentioning, so I guess they should be written down: