The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – 4K UHD Review
DISCLAIMER: Due to lack of existing abilities to acquire screencaps from 4K UHD Blu-ray discs, all screencaps will be taken from the standard 1080p Blu-ray presentation, which is included in this release. All screencaps will taken from the 2.35:1 sequences from the Blu-ray to approximate the 4K experience.
The Movie (4.5/5)
I’ll admit that I was a bit turned off by Gary Ross’s adaptation of the first Hunger Games novel. The movie was incredibly successful on many counts, especially in establishing a tangible representation of the horrifying world outside of the Capital as described in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult novels, and in bring the character of Katniss to life through a fantastic performance by Jennifer Lawrence, in her breakout mainstream role. It did a great job in presenting the games as a tense experience for the characters involved, and in establishing the universe as one where actions have legitimate consequences, unlike in many blockbuster franchises where things go wrong to an extreme extent, and are then wiped away before the next movie releases. But I just could not sink into the film’s heavy handed attempts to make the film look gritty and realistic, with an obnoxious push to shoot as much of the film using handheld cinematography as possible making the viewing experience a queasy one for me. I have a hard time focusing on the good storytelling qualities and great acting if I have a difficult time figuring out what’s going on in the frame.
Luckily, the film was incredibly successful, prompting Lionsgate to green light the sequel almost immediately, hiring director Francis Lawrence to helm an adaptation of the second book, Catching Fire, without all of the Paul Greengrass on steroids visual styling, opting for a more traditional action blockbuster style. The sequel was unleashed into theaters in late 2013, benefitting from a substantially larger budget, a fresh creative take on the franchise, and a marketing campaign that promised larger than life experiences with portions of the film shot using IMAX 15/70mm film cameras. With that in mind, I decided the franchise was worthy of a second chance, and headed to my local digital IMAX with a friend and his then girlfriend to take in the sights and sounds of the next chapter of the Hunger Games franchise. Spoiler alert – I loved it.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a direct sequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games, dropping us into the immediate proceedings of the events of the first film, with our heroes and victors of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta returning home to prepare for a victory tour through the nation. While there, Katniss is visited by the malicious President Snow, who warns her that she is to play by his rules, and that any step out of line would result in disaster for her home and her loved ones. After her appearances along the many stops of the tour result in increased violence and rioting against the capital, a new Hunger Games is announced known as the Quarter Quell, in which previous victors of the games are thrown back in the ring as a means of spreading oppression and hopelessness over the people. As a result, Katniss and Peeta must enter the arena again, this time against bloodthirsty victors from the previous years, forcing them to make new allies, defeat even more intense foes, and win the favor of the upper class residents of the Captial in order to ensure their survival in a new game designed by an even more ruthless Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee in which the stakes are higher than ever.
Let me get this out of the way. Catching Fire, right off the bat is a sharper, cleaner looking movie. The effects are sharper and more grandiose, the scale is much larger this time around, and someone on the crew decided it was time to rent some stedicams rigs and tripods on which to mount the cameras. The film’s shooting style has been completely revamped under the watchful eyes of cinematographer Jo Willems and director Francis Lawrence, and it makes a world of difference. It makes me wonder how much easier I would have been on the first film had I been able to figure out what’s going on.
On top of that, now that the world of Panem has already been established, and the first film and its melodrama and events having been taken place, Lawrence and his creative team have been handed a far easier job. Gone are the drawn out scenes that establish character relationships – at this point, we know who’s who in the love triangle, and how evil the Capital is. Without that baggage, and with arguably the best source material behind it to adapt, Catching Fire is the slickest, most grounded, and most devastating chapter in this film franchise.
The film’s characterization of Katniss is no longer that of the brave, determined older sister looking out for her family, but of the broken, traumatized, and angry husk of a person that’s been left behind after being forced to commit atrocities during her time in the arena. Jennifer Lawrence goes to great lengths to sell Katniss as a shattered spirit, and it does a world of wonder for the character. Even Peeta, played by Josh Hutchinson, gets his chance to shine as the character expresses heartbreak and anger in all the right ways as he’s forced to play act his way through a relationship that he’s always desired, but will never truly get to acquire with Katniss. Our two leads are given a far more interesting level of depth in this film, compared to their roles in the previous film.
It’s like everything bland or problematic about the first Hunger Games film, and in parallel, the book, has been wiped away with this entry – the new supporting characters, such as Finnick and Joanna, played by Sam Claflin and Jena Malone add a brand new level of sass and fire that, although I didn’t think it really needed it, now I can’t see it working without. Even the returning supporting cast, with characters such as Caesar Flickerman, Haymitch Abernathy, and Cinna returning for the second movie, their roles instilled with a new air of confidence that makes them feel fresh and engaging, rather than their previously bland or annoying roles in the first film.
The film’s score, composed by veteran Hollywood film composer James Newton Howard, is emotive and grand, rising to meet the high emotions that run throughout most of the film. It perfectly complements the insanity of the fighting in the arena, but quiets down in the film’s more subtle moments, swelling to meet the events on screen appropriately. Other technical aspects of the film’s construction, such as the editing excel as well, helping a beefy 2+ hour movie run smoothly, and accomplish all of its goals comfortably.
Overall, Catching Fire is a stronger, darker, and easier film to become submerged in. The stakes within the film are higher, but the script and production design, as well as the acting and overall construction of the film have raised up to meet the second story in the Hunger Games book trilogy. I walked away from The Hunger Games annoyed, whereas Catching Fire left me wanting for more as the credits rolled, something that many modern franchise blockbuster entries before it, and made after it have failed to do.
The Video (3.5/5)
I chose The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to be my debut UHD Blu-ray review, as it was a personal favorite of mine on its initial release to Blu-ray in 2014. I used its superb sound mix and fantastic 1080p video transfer as a reference when re-calibrating my bedroom home theater system, and still feel it is a transfer that I am intimately familiar with to this day. As such, I felt it would be easier for me to approach this new 4K, HDR enhanced transfer due to that context.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was shot using a hybrid of 4-perf 35mm film cameras paired with Panavision anamorphic lenses, and 15-perf 65mm IMAX film cameras. The entire arena sequence of the film was completed using the IMAX film format, while the rest was shot traditionally using 35mm cameras. The film was finished using a 4K digital intermediate, with select visual effects generated at 2K and upscaled for the finished product. It was screened in theaters in both 4K and 2K presentations with a constant 2.35:1 aspect ratio, while 2K Digital IMAX screens received a multi-aspect ratio presentation that opened up from 2.35:1 to 1.90:1 when the battle in the arena began. While the original Blu-ray maintained the aspect ratio shift from the IMAX presentation, I suspect that because that version was prepared by IMAX for 2K projection, that this release was sourced from the master used to create the 4K DCP, and as a result in presented in a constant 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Watching Catching Fire in 4K with HDR was both an incredible, and confusing experience all rolled into once. At its finest, it presented some of the most beautifully detailed, and finely grained images I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Close-ups, especially during daytime exposures, and sequences that were constructed with minimal CGI reveal incredible sharpness and image depth that I had never seen before in a 1080p image. The HDR enhanced image presents a more subdued color spectrum that feels more grounded in reality than the previous presentations.
For all of its highs however, Catching Fire’s new presentation showed off quite a number of wrinkles, especially during sequences that feature heavy CGI effects. Many of these CGI heavy shots, such as the one with a large rush of water racing down a portion of the arena late in the film, look incredibly soft and at times slightly pixelated. There are a number of CGI establishing shots that feature an ugly, artificial noise like grain, rather than the sharp and even film grain that covers the majority of the film grain. The HDR enhanced image, at least on my LG 4K OLED at times was a little too dark, especially during the acid-smoke chase sequence, where the majority of the frame was somewhat hard to make out beyond the actors’ faces.
After watching Catching Fire in 4K however, going back to the Blu-ray for comparison was nearly painful. The blacks just didn’t hold up at all, and the 1080p image’s color seem artificially brighter, and slightly more washed out at times. Film grain looks a tad messier, and although the 2K visual effects held up better, the image was overall less sharp, especially going to those close-ups that impressed so much in 4K. The only real advantage I’d give to the 1080p transfer is that the 1.78:1 IMAX sequences do a much better job of helping the arena sequences feel larger than life, something I missed watching the 4K transfer in standard 2.35:1.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is by no means perfect in 4K with HDR, but IMAX aspect ratio aside, it does make for an overall superior experience that I’m not sure I’d be able to go back from.
The Audio (5/5)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is presented on UHD Blu-ray with a new Dolby Atmos sound mix, most likely based on the mix that was used in theaters during its original 2013 run. For review purposes, it was listened to in 5.1 surround sound – it wouldn’t be one of my signature reviews if we didn’t take a state of the art sound mix and play it back in what is essentially Dolby TrueHD 5.1!
That being said, even if you don’t have speakers hanging out above your heard, Catching Fire provides an incredible standard audio presentation. Dialogue is mixed entirely into the center channel, but when the action kicks into high gear, suddenly your living room, or home theater becomes the arena. Water rushes towards you, weapons go flying, and creatures run around the soundstage effortlessly. Capital transport ships pan seemlessly from left to right, and from the front of the back of the 5.1 speaker configuration naturally. Each explosion, and gunshot goes off with incredible force from through the low frequency effect channel. It very much mimics the excellent qualities of the standard Blu-ray’s 7.1 DTS-Master Audio surround sound mix.
Special Features/Packaging (2.5/5)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is released onto 4K UHD Blu-ray by Lionsgate Home Entertainment in a standard black UHD Blu-ray keepcase, with a rounded edged slipcover. The artwork for the slipcover and the case are identical, except that the slipcover has a glossy finish. The front artwork features a picture of Jennifer Lawrence in full combat costume as Katniss, wielding her standard bow and arrow, englufed in the flames of the Mockingjay with a nice 4K Ultra HD banner sitting atop the image. The back artwork features a rather ugly, low resolution image that features all of the main characters from the 75th Hunger Games arena battle, alongside a paragraph about the film, review quotes, a list of features, technical specs, and a 4K Ultra HD information banner. Overall, an average package job from Lionsgate.
Onto the features:
4K Ultra HD Disc:
Commentary – a feature length audio commentary performed by director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson. Pretty average commentary that reveals a basic amount of behind the scenes information about the production of the film. A hold over from the standard Blu-ray release.
Commentary – same deal as above, just paired with the 1080p presentation of the film
Surviving the Game: Making The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – a comprehensive, nearly two and a half hour documentary that covers ever facet of the production from top to bottom.
Deleted Scenes – 4 minutes worth of deleted scenes. Nothing too substantial, just some minor conversations and some interesting moments that never really built up to much else.
For such a huge release, the lack of new content is a little disappointing, but that disappointment is mitigated by the always wonderful feature length documentary, that’s nearly as long as the feature film. The packaging is fairly average though. Don’t expect a fancy display piece.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Dolby Atmos (English)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish)
Runtime: 146 minutes
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was one of my favorite big budget blockbusters to hit theaters back in 2013. It improved in almost every way over the first Hunger Games film franchise entry, proving that it could handle going darker, and bigger in parallel. The spectacle of IMAX and the higher budget, on top of a new creative team made way for a more mature, watchable experience that stands tall as the best entry in the Hunger Games film franchise. Lionsgate has re-released the film to home video with an excitingly beautiful, but occasionally troublesome 4K UHD video transfer, and an amazing Dolby Atmos sound mix that will please home theater enthusiasts everywhere. It’s a shame they couldn’t reach deeper into their pockets and pull out some new extras, or more inspiring package. Either way, it made for a hell of a first impression as a new 4K, HDR enabled television owner. Recommended.