The Last Jedi is a Messy Masterpiece
Lines curved around the corner, popcorn was sold out, and records were smashed this weekend with the release of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second in the franchise of films based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy. After the resounding success of last year’s (was it that long ago?) “Hunger Games,” which turned heroine Katniss Everdeen and the actress responsible into household names, critical and financial success for the latest installment seemed inevitable, but perhaps quite not on this level. The popularity is deserved; the film, which ended “Thor”‘s several week-long run at the box office with the largest opening weekend ever for a non-3D film also manages to provide an incredibly tense and thought-provoking action thriller, giving more of what made the first film so engaging while also making up for what that film lacked.
And the first film did lack a few things. “The Hunger Games” was a refreshing and engaging piece of sci-fi action, but its lack of focus often kept the premise from evolving into a truly great movie. Never fear though, its potential is more than realized here. In “Catching Fire” we catch up with Katniss Everdeen after having returned from the games a changed woman. She desperately wants to leave the games behind and move on with her life with her family and with Gale Hawthorn (Liam Hemsworth), a love interest to both Katniss and most of the intended audience. However, she has discovered that her antics in the arena have made her an unwilling hero to the masses, forcing her to keep up a relationship with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark in front of the cameras. However, her status as a symbol of the people has begun to sow defiance among the districts, prompting the ire of President Snow, who enlists the help of Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, of all people) to come up with a way to kill the Girl on Fire, without prompting a possibly violent outcry from her extensive fanbase.
They ultimately decide to hold, what else, a new Hunger Games, this time pitting Katniss against several decades worth of winners. This time, however, the stakes are bigger and the characters far more interesting. Among the pool of contestants Katniss must face are the enigmatic Finick (Sam Claflin), the intelligent Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and a vicious axe-wielding girl named Joanna (Jena Malone). It’s one thing that our heroine will be forced to face more dangerous combatants, but it’s a clever stroke that her enemies are also more engaging, something missing from the villains in the last film. We come to like some of these people, in spite of the obvious fact that only one of them can live. This increases the tension, although it occasionally comes at the expense of the grit of the first film, with Katniss herself resembling less the scared everyday-girl from before and more an archer worthy of a spot on “The Avengers,” but fortunately Lawrence has a more involved supporting cast to back her up.
A cast that includes Elizabeth Banks, whose Effie Trinket is forced to show more humanity in light of the events, and Woody Harrelson, who returns in a spirited role as Katniss’s mentor, Haymitch. We also get the return of Hutcherson, reserved and subtle as ever, which is a far cry from Stanley Tucci’s character Caeser. I found him a little annoying at times, but I suppose that’s the point. The shining spots here are the villains, in particular an angrier Sutherland, who had precious little to do in the last film besides act like the world’s grumpiest mall santa; and Hoffman is always a welcome addition. But, of course, the film knows its strength, and its strength is in Lawrence, who carries the film on her more than capable shoulders. She’s a badass, but it’s the quiet emotion she shows when alone in the forest that conveys the humanity in the midst of an otherwise incredibly inhuman premise.
Ultimately, under the new direction of Francis Lawrence, “Catching Fire” has enough wit and humanity to become a truly engaging thriller. As always, the brilliance in this franchise (as with its protagonist and starring actress) rests in its defiance of its own fame; as if nobody told the director that a movie aimed at young adults is not supposed to have a scene where Phillip Seymour Hoffman conspires with another old, white man about how best to kill a teenage girl. The film is still flawed in a few ways: although written, directed, and acted better, it still does not offer a complete resolution, more interested instead in drawing up excitement for the two-part finale, and it’s themes occasionally border on overzealous. But it’s still a thoughtful and exciting experience for anyone, convert or not.