Still hungry

Viewers follow the few rational people left in the Hunger Games’ world of Panem into Catching Fire, the feisty Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and low strung Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), two of only a handful who seem to connect with the madness of these “games.”

The series has done well to bring complex themes down to a suitable teenage level. This depiction of tyrannical government, a class system’s unfair harshness, and the uprising of right is all overdrawn and simplistic – rich wear implausibly posh, frilly dresses and hock up their food to eat more. Everyone else doesn’t. Broader context for this conflict has been done with more richness and metaphorical vigor, but never with such careful consideration of a younger audience.

Jennifer Lawrence proves to be striking casting, smart in representing a rise in feminine power and dazzling in her ability to swap emotions. Her surrounding character arc is minimal, mentally battered by a manipulative Capitol, a congregation of political rabble rousers who exist to keep peace and make Katniss miserable.

Catching Fire has the benefit of previous developments (as with any canonical sequel), now free to explore, drop, and add characters at the will of the narrative. Opening acts further the strength of these personalities, certainly more so than a three-way romantic tangle pinging Twilight and the eventual games themselves which too frequently degenerate into actors battling special effects. Donald Sutherland’s sneering dictator-ish President, Stanley Tucci’s gleaming game show host demeanor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s sly game master, Elizabeth Banks gratuitously dressed hostess; each is glorious in their place, arguably more so than the battling Hunger Games combatants themselves.

Eventually though, the Games will come. They have to. It’s what audiences pay for. Catching Fire is not lost though, and instead builds on the available background to deepen Katniss’ resolve. Her allies bounce between tension-inducing and friendly, a clever means to keep Catching Fire uneasy and unpredictable.

If it wasn’t clear what Katniss’ greater role is, Catching Fire will ensure it via a gaudy, Christ-like euphemism for life, death, and rebirth before it’s over. It’s ludicrous. However, getting there is splendid even if a touch somewhat superficial. With her team formed, Katniss battles a troop of baboons, runs from floods, and dodges tidal waves, anything to create a more passive, less violent scenario, better to sell her displeasure for what – in this world anyway – is seen as necessary murder.

What remains is more world building, more rebellion. Anger and spite. The set-up is tantalizing, on the fringes of upheaval, even if Hunger Games has been bitten by the multi-movie finale studios are growing frustratingly fond of. If each turns out to be this strong though, chances are they can stretch it. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Movie]

IMAX kicks in @ 1:23:25

While the final film(s?) will be captured digitally, Catching Fire has the distinction of not only being done on film stock, but also IMAX. First act drama is 35mm and the Games themselves are done in glorious 65mm. The latter is reference, the former less so.

Lionsgate’s compression does not appear impressive despite acceptable bitrates. While close-ups show a distinct and clean preservation fidelity, medium shots when in motion turn messy, even blotchy. While focus can show a natural drift, this appears more complicated and on the encoding level. Grain is sloppily handled, leaving a sickly digital residue behind. The look is comparable to mild filtering.

This is nearly entirely absent come the Games, a 50-minute block of action which is stupendous, battling for the top of this format’s tiers. Exquisite fine grain adds a needed overlay of texture, while cinematography overloads on beauty. Resolution soars immediately, introducing Katniss to the arena and a new IMAX-appropriate aspect ratio. The difference is shown in a rotating close-up, capturing every bead of sweat and open pore. Cameras pan back to show a mixture of Hawaii location footage and green screen filler, all of it marvelous.

Heavy color timing tweaks will further separate the film stocks. Catching Fire brings in the usual slab of teals and cooled oranges, mixing for the sake of this downtrodden existence. Come Hawaii, things pick up. Oranges have more kick, and the reliance on blues is lessened except for night. Plus, everything can produce an extensive stretch of green throughout the jungle.

While contrast is mostly dour (again, except for daytime in the arena), black levels are executed with care. While they lack premium density, their attributes are satisfying in maintaining shadows and depth. For a film meant to appear moody and flat, Catching Fire shows some flair. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]

Few discs use this much stretched dialog anymore. Conversations featured in this DTS-HD mix spread the entire width of the soundstage. It’s so frequent and common as to be a curious (if well appreciated) choice.

Catching Fire is splendid in all audio regards though. Major action, from ship engines to underground motors, force the subwoofer to spit out some marvelous low-end punch. The electronic hum of the training room is superb too while a couple of accentuated gunshots are brutal.

Surround work is the highlight, delivering in spaciousness and careful placement. Tracking and movement is stupendous. From the piercingly loud Jabberjays to the vividness of jungle ambiance, Catching Fire is a showcase even if the action is on pause. When engaged, it’s a blast of flying arrows, rushing water, or directionally attacking baboons. You can hear the budget as well as you can visualize it. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Audio]

New director Francis Lawrence pairs with producer Nina Jacobson for feature length commentating, with a short selection of deleted scenes following.

Passable as those bonuses are, Surviving the Game is the disc’s heart. Longer than the feature itself at 145 minutes, this eight-part documentary would usually be reserved for the end of a series, or maybe an all-in-one box set. Instead, it’s here and fantastically done. Participants are honest about their roles and the brutal time crunch imposed by the studio. For fans, this is a must. For those intrigued by major film production? You’re in the same group. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Extras]


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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