Much like with the unwilling contestants fighting to the death in the arena in The Hunger Games movies, the odds are never in your favour when it comes to sequels. There seems to be an unwritten rule that when a first effort is great, the follow-up will be less so. Even author Suzanne Collins’ popular Hunger Games books succumbed a fraction to this seemingly immutable law.
But much like its characters, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire incites the realization that occasionally you can break a few laws and rise above your alloted station.
When we last saw Jennifer Lawrence’s arrow-shooting heroine, Katniss Everdeen, she and her District 12 neighbour and faux beau Peeta Mellark (the stoic Josh Hutcherson), had pulled off the unprecedented coup of both of them winning the 74th Hunger Games, an annual event in which two contestants from each of the twelve grayscaled, downtrodden districts have to fight to the death for the TV viewing amusement of the peacock inhabitants of the Capitol. The “couple” have captured the hearts of the kaleidoscopic garbed Capitol citizens with their manufactured love story, but more importantly, they have shown the inhabitants of the other districts that sometimes you can defy the boot on your neck. Or the lash at your back. Or the bullet in your skull. Did I mention the Capitol were not nice people?
This is all much to the dismay of odious President Snow (a bloodless, scenery chewing Donald Sutherland), who realizes that Katniss and Peeta’s display of defiance threatens to incite revolution. As a means to control the situation, Snow has newcomer Games Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who clearly didn’t get the memo about dressing like you’re in a 1980’s music video) put together a special 75th Annual Hunger Games – the Quarter Quell – which will see its pool of not-so-glad-iators drawn up only from past victors. And seeing as District 12 has only ever had 3 victors, including Woody Harrelson’s booze soaked mentor, Haymitch, that’s bad news for Team Katniss.
As if the unwanted responsibility of being the living symbol of a revolution as well as being sentenced to death by reality TV wasn’t enough, Katniss also has to deal with homegrown childhood sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who is not entirely convinced that Katniss and Peeta’s on-screen relationship is as fake as they claim it to be. Problem is, neither is Katniss.
And here lies the first of Catching Fire‘s biggest accomplishments. Despite the fact that the film runs a bladder destroying 146 minutes – an extended figure that allows incoming director Francis Lawrence to dedicate more screentime and so do more justice to Suzanne Collins’ dystopian future America than his predecessor Gary Ross ever did – Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s script knows exactly what fat to trim, while still staying extremely true to the source. And the biggest piece of blubber that readers had to chew in the book, Katniss’ Twilight-esque flip-flopping affections for Peeta and Gale, here gets toned down so that instead of a saccharine romance, it just becomes good human drama.
And a lot of this, as well as the rest of the film’s success, is due to Jennifer Lawrence. The Oscar winning actress commands attentions and emotions as capably as her character commands a bow and arrow. Through her incredibly grounded and believable performance, Katniss is all nuanced complexity and commendable strength.
And she’s helped along through solid performances from everybody around her – including newcomers like Sam Claflin’s effortlessly charming, golden boy Finnick O’Dair; Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer’s geeky ex-champions, Beetee and Wiress, and Jena Malone’s saucy, axe-swinging minx, Johanna Mason – who all really have to bring their best character work to the table since that’s essentially all the first half of the film has to offer. And that’s definitely not a bad thing.
By firstly establishing and molding characters, Catching Fire adds an emotional depth to their plight that elevates the stakes when it eventually comes time for half the cast to have to kill each other in the arena in creative ways later.
And said arena gets a bit of an upgrade courtesy not only of Plutarch Heavensbee’s deadlier intentions, but also a couple million extra in the film’s budget. Money well spent as the film not only boasts impeccably fantastical and lethal digital landscapes and animals – from poisonous fog to toothy baboons – but the film’s lavishly impossible costumes, so important to the story, is brought to life with consummate skill by costume designer Trish Summerville. In short, this is simply an amazing looking film.
Unfortunately, if you were hoping to see more crimson than just what’s found on Cinna’s newest magical fashion creation, you’ll be a bit disappointed. As the Hunger Games books go along, they increase exponentially in violence, but the films are kept strictly PG-13 – Catching Fire surprisingly even more so than it’s predecessor. This is a film that occasionally strains against its age-restriction, sometimes to the detriment of the clarity of action on screen. This is not a common problem, thanks to Francis Lawrence’s capable direction, but in one particular scene, it’s rather noticeable.
Also, being a middle chapter the film suffers the problem of not really having any definitive resolution. This is one place where Francis Lawrence and co’s calculated pacing and dedication to the source actually works against them, as you feel the story organically building, and when the non-stop rollercoaster ride of the actual Hunger Games eventually begins, you can feel it careening to a major climax. Except, just before it reaches that point, it’s fade to black, hello giant logo of the upcoming sequel, see you again next year!
It’s a frustrating non-ending that may be true to the original structure but will definitely leave some viewers irked. Luckily, they will have the memory of what came before that final fizzle – the best YA adaptation seen on screen to date – to console them.
Last Updated: November 19, 2013