Tuesday, December 10, 2013

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” – Who doesn’t love the hero’s journey?

I happened to be in Sydney, Australia, a couple of weeks ago and came across a sign on a theater in Darling Harbour reading “World’s Biggest Screen – IMAX.” I wasn’t sure if it meant that IMAX is the world’s biggest screen or if this particular screen was the largest in the world. So, I looked it up and found that it was the biggest screen in the world. Of course, now I had to see a movie there and it was sheer luck that Catching Fire had opened that very same weekend. If you ever have the chance to see a movie in this place, here is what you need to know: the tickets each cost 31 Australian dollars (about 29.50 in U.S. dollars), you have assigned seats, and, most importantly, the screen is too big. I know that’s the whole point, but when you can’t take in the entire screen without moving your head, it’s too big. Whenever there was a close-up of an actor, their heads and faces seemed distorted. It could be that we (my wife and I) were closer to the side than the middle, but the seats were simply too close to the screen. I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula for distance of seats relative to the size of the screen (I’ve used it for positioning couches in my home), but this theater didn’t seem to use it. But, after adjusting to the huge visuals and eye-popping prices, I settled in to enjoying probably the best movie of the year.

I’ve waited a little while to right this review, not just because I was travelling, but also because I wanted to hear people’s opinions. The vast majority of people loved the movie and most of them followed that with “it was better than the first movie.” This is a common refrain for a lot of sequels these days, but people have a hard time articulating why. In most cases, the films are equal in terms of production quality and acting, and in some cases, are filmed at the same time. Catching Fire is far more similar to Lord of the Rings, The Matrix sequels, or Pirates of the Caribbean sequels than Mission Impossible or James Bond in that the story is a continuation rather than a standalone piece. But, what makes all recent sequels seem to be more liked (think just about every superhero movie of the last decade and a half) is because the audience already knows the characters and the back story. For the sequel, the screenwriters can immediately jump into the meat of the story because they don’t have to worry about explaining how they got there beyond maybe a quick narration or flashback montage. It’s just title, opening credits, and off to the races. Or the games.

Catching Fire begins where The Hunger Games leaves off. Hunger Games champions Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home to District 12 and are getting ready for their victory tour of Panem. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is more than a little miffed at Katniss for her rebellious actions during the games and warns her to sell her love of Peeta to the people during the tour, lest her family face the consequences. As the tour moves along, outright rebellion takes a few more steps toward reality, so Snow, on the advice of the new head gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decides that the next Hunger Games will include tributes pulled from the existing group of former champions to honor the Games’ 75th anniversary and also serve as the execution method of Katniss.

See how easy that movie is for people to absorb? The only thing the writers have to develop is the conception of the next games, which is easily captured in the overarching theme of the story – rebelling against a totalitarian government and how the government is going to squash the rebellion before it begins.

Another reason why people like the movie (and the books) so much is that it’s a very familiar story, following the classic hero’s journey almost to the letter. To put it in terms of movies everyone knows, it’s Star Wars without lasers and droids, and Catching Fire is The Empire Strikes Back. Think about the first film for a moment – a young, gifted youth from a destitute area is mentored by a grizzled veteran and is instrumental in defeating the evil government’s ultimate weapon. In the second film, the evil government goes on the offensive, stopping at nothing to destroy the face of the rebellion, even to the point of using mercenaries to hunt down the hero. --(SPOILER, SPOILER)-- The hero suffers an injury before barely escaping with her life and, when she awakens, she finds herself in a medical bay surrounded by the leaders of the rebellion and learns that her best friend has been captured by government. I’m not saying that Catching Fire steals from Empire; I’m pointing out that both of them successfully use the hero’s journey to tell a compelling story and that’s why they appeal so strongly to audiences.

Aside from having a great story and great performances, the best thing about the movie was the decision by the filmmakers to get rid of the damned shaky cam. While the technique works well in found footage movies, it almost universally sucks in every other movie. The single biggest flaw with The Hunger Games was the shaky cam making it very difficult to follow scenes, making some members of the audience nauseous, while adding nothing of value to the film. Catching Fire was far easier to watch simply because the frames of the film sat still and you weren’t worried about the person next to you puking on your shoes.

Now that Catching Fire is behind us, we’re already looking forward to the third film in the series, Mockingjay, Part 1. Given the love for Catching Fire, I’m sure there’s going to be a little bit of a letdown as Mockingjay is all about the rebellion and ensuing war and features no Hunger Games. But, as long as nothing resembling an Ewok shows up, I’m sure everyone will be satisfied.

Rating: Worth every penny I paid for it, though not on that particular IMAX.

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