If it's crap ... We'll tell you
We finally have another epic story that can take the Harry Potter formula to the next logical step. Harry Potter was a phenomenon unlike any other. It got an entire generation to read, it broke all grounds in terms of what Hollywood epics were capable of, and it delved into the deepest core of the human condition in order to tell the oldest type of story in a new fashion. But then, we were made to endure the dark and desolate despair on society that was Twilight. Now that Harry Potter has ended gracefully and Twilight is slowly but surely waning from the public consciousness, something must step in to take its place that will hopefully satisfy one of, if not both, sets of audiences in terms of fantastical storytelling concerning young adults. Fortunately this film qualifies for all of the above.
If one were to break down what this film is, it would be very difficult to reason or explain how this could possibly work. It is the Theseus myth from Greek mythology mixed with the War on Terror and reality TV but set in a post-apocalyptic America (now named Panem), according to author Suzanne Collins. Not only that but the radical differences between the poor and the rich really add to the bewilderment of the film's concept. It starts out with a young girl and her sister living in the woods with her best friend and it seems like the story would have taken place a long time ago but then... a hovercraft passes by. It is a society that has so horribly gone wrong that the poor are living like pioneers while the rich get to live in this massive metropolis that is almost the ideal home for anyone. But what makes the film so effective and so utterly disturbing to watch is that it is a warped reflection of what America has become in the past several years. Most of the utterly beautiful fashion icons have become nothing but vapid and superfluous pieces of meat who are so blissfully ignorant of how worthless they are. The commentators on the news have become nothing more than just spectators to the chaos that goes around them every day instead of actively bringing awareness to the real issues of the day. We have been spoon-fed utterly revolting reality TV with some of the country's biggest sponsors endorsing it. We have been flooded with news stories on a regular basis for the past decade about dead soldiers returning home from a war that continues to get worse and worse every day. We're still recovering from the scars of a President that has done unimaginable damage to countries all over the world and we've been desperately searching for hope ever since.
Thankfully the social commentary is only there for the audience to really explore if they choose to because the real hook of this story is the beginning of a romance that will forever change the course of an incredibly violent society. It might be using similar romantic components as Twilight but it is much smarter than that and it actually does right what Twilight got so horribly wrong. The only connection that Edward and Bella really have is their likeness in music and that's about it. He has lived hundreds of years and experienced so many things while she has probably never left America and is only focused on making decisions that fit her own selfish needs of instant gratification. What Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark share is actually quite real. They both come from the same District, they both struggle to get by in the real world, they both feel fear and insecurity when facing their imminent doom, they both compliment each other in terms of their weaknesses when it comes to preparing for the Hunger Games themselves, and they both share common affection for each other and for what the other is trying to do. Their love is selfless and true given their horrifying circumstance and that automatically elevates their romantic strength dozens of notches above Twilight's idea of love. The other thing that really elevates their relationship is the fact that they are both played by two of the finest young actors working today: Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, who deliver their career defining performances here. Ever since her emergence into Hollywood film with The Burning Plain, there's always been that bright spark of raw talent that brought along great promise when it came to Jennifer Lawrence. It was even evident on the short-lived The Bill Engvall Show. Her Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone and box office success of X-Men: First Class made it even clearer that she was bound for an interesting career but Katniss Everdeen is the role that will make her as big as Emma Watson. She totally owns the role and makes her one of the great heroines to come along in quite a long time. Josh Hutcherson, on the other hand, has finally proven his worth to everyone else. For many years, he's been struggling to find the right role that would launch him right through the stratosphere in terms of being one of the actors at the forefront of my generation. Zathura became criminally underrated, RV was an unfortunate disaster, Bridge to Terabithia was a great fantasy film that fell into obscurity, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant turned out to be a sloppy adaptation of a supposedly decent book, and it's taken forever for the Red Dawn remake to get released. But after doing well with Journey to the Center of the Earth and being part of an Oscar calibre ensemble with The Kids Are All Right, he's finally been given the chance to spread his acting wings like no other opportunity and he does so magnificently. While Jennifer Lawrence is the strongest character in the story and makes herself a role model to young girls everywhere, it's Josh Hutcherson who manages to steal away a lot of scenes. He completely inhabits the character of Peeta and manages to build an actual character (not just a handsome love interest for the main character) around him. He might be the good looking, physically strong boy but he is insecure, afraid, utterly brave, and ultimately virtuous. Girls might fall in love with his looks but guys could just as easily fall in love with his character because he is truly the kind of man any decent boy would aspire to be. Hutcherson has set the standard for the soulful hero and for that alone, he can do anything he wants now for the rest of his life and of all the young actors in the cast, he deserves it the most.
Everyone else in the film also performs admirably well. Liam Hemsworth lends a natural charisma and air of mystery to Gale Hawthorne that will most definitely be explored later on. Elizabeth Banks gleefully revels in being the most superficial and loathsome character in all of the Capitol named Effie Trinket. Both Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson make for incredibly heart-warming and compelling mentors to Katniss and Peeta as Cinna and Haymitch Abernathy while Stanley Tucci gets to have some fun playing the ultimate spectator in the form of Caesar Flickerman, the Jeff Probst of the world of Panem. Even though Wes Bentley and Alexander Ludwig really sell the utter selfishness of their respective characters (Seneca Crane, the head guy in charge of the Games and Cato, the arrogant male tribute of District 2 with a really sinister glare), it's Donald Sutherland as President Snow that really gives the most menacing performance of all the antagonists. He's finally been given a role that will make him famous to all the young people out there and he's able to say so much with just his eyes that it's almost unsettling how relaxed he is because this is a man with no emotional attachment to anything and would spare no mercy to anyone that double crossed him despite his age. If President Snow were played by a lesser actor, the ending of this film would have just faltered miserably but the look on Donald Sutherland's face of utter nothingness is almost like staring into the darkest abyss imaginable for a human being. For what little triumphs the heroes manage to accomplish, there is still an imminent feeling of doom that is fast approaching and it is the very definition of haunting.
Despite all of the great components that really make this film so effective, there are a handful of distracting problems that seriously need fixing in terms of going forward with the the next two or three films. As much as Alexander Ludwig is effective as the glowering tough guy who seems too evil at times, his character isn't given any real substance or explanation apart from the obvious that would make him a truly despicable villain within the Hunger Games themselves. He's only there to serve as the physical antagonist for Katniss and Peeta to defeat before tackling the entire Capitol and that's pretty much it. Gale's character could have been explored a bit more but if that's the intent of the sequel then it shouldn't be too big of an issue because he does seem like an interesting character that could perfectly stand a chance against Peeta for heart of Katniss in terms of the romantic part of the storyline. What the film should be given credit for is the fact that while it definitely leaves open the possibility or inevitability of a sequel, it feels self-contained in terms of the dialogue while the imagery is left to interpretation in terms of the characters' reactions as to what has just happened over the course of the film. In terms of what happens over the film, the most surprising aspect of this film is the fact that it takes its time and it is quiet for the majority of the film. In a way, it feels more like a character driven story than a typical blockbuster film and that is a huge compliment to director Gary Ross and his confident ability in storytelling. The problem with this tactic, however, is that the action is shot too much like Batman Begins and it is too hard to really feel the pain and suffering of all of these children dying and it diminishes the film's potential effect. It's understandable that it would be much easier to get the core demographic of the novels' fan base to see the film along with other people who might be too disturbed about the idea of a futuristic reality show that causes kids to kill each other but it doesn't really show how completely demented and perverted this society is. Nevertheless, Gary Ross, Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins are still able to make the audience care enough for Katniss and Peeta to survive the Hunger Games that it's just a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things and that was the wisest decision they could have made.
Ultimately, this film does almost everything right. The actors fit their roles perfectly, the characters are well-rounded, the story is well-constructed, the world of Panem is unlike anything that's been seen cinematically in quite a while, the cinematography is gorgeous, and it is the next step in the evolution of the hyperbolic parables and myths left behind by Harry Potter. This is only the beginning to a potentially amazing saga of dystopian science fiction and it will be really interesting to see where Katniss, Peeta, Gale and the rest of Panem do next. Only time will tell if Catching Fire will be the next Dark Knight, Empire Strikes Back, or Two Towers.
Rating: Full Price!!