The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
2013 - 146 minutes
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
The second film in the series adapting Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular novels bests in predecessor in every way. If 2012’s The Hunger Games was a drab exposition dump, Catching Fire is the payoff for that dull setup. Picking up the fumbled ball from Gary Ross – who ended a 9-year directing layoff with The Hunger Games – director Francis Lawrence adds a steady sci-fi touch that colors this future world where a smiling, oppressive ruler lords over the impoverished districts of Panem. The human drama this time around also goes much deeper than young adult literature coming of age angst. Catching Fire has palpable stakes beyond the shock of watching kids walk through the woods and occasionally kill each other.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are back home in dreary District 12 after claiming victory in the gladiatorial Hunger Games, where two youths from each of the 12 districts battle to the death. After bucking the system and winning in an unorthodox fashion, the pair is set to embark on a victory tour. The trip is less about celebration than it is President Snow (Donald Sutherland) using the ruse of the duo’s concocted romance to suppress Katniss’ status as transformative revolutionary. But the seeds of unrest have already been planted and citizens in the various districts show signs of defiance.
To quash any potential rebellion before it beings new Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) proposes Snow increase security presence in the districts with more public beatings and executions. Also, to prove that even the most celebrated of citizens are vulnerable, Heavensbee suggests that the upcoming 75th Hunger Games be an all-star game of sorts with past winners coming back to battle it out to the finish. If the president and the rich Capitol won’t hesitate to exercise power over conquering heroes, what hope do the rest of the regular folk have?
This device also allows for a more interesting group of warriors. There are a handful of teen dream pinup types, including a statuesque brother-sister duo, along with some broad villains – one girl even has teeth filed into fangs. But they’re just window-dressing threats representing the old guard. More intriguing are Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as savvy veterans who approach the game from an intellectual angle. Brash Johanna (Jenna Malone) and butch Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) are each deeper than their external flash, each motivated by a loyalty to Katniss and Peeta.
Lawrence is absolutely fantastic in the lead role and the series is extremely fortunate to have her as its face. She has an inherent pluckiness to her that’s not forced, able to pull it back or let it bubble over when called for. Catching Fire lets that spirit simmer and shine with great effect. The moment where a wedding dress morphs into a sophisticated cocktail number with a little something extra is more than a special effect costuming showoff – it means something. The expectations of what it is to be a heroine are being shattered by the character and by the actress portraying her, which is captivating.
All supporting players around Lawrence are strong as well. Hoffman is a welcome addition and deserves mention, as does Woody Harrelson as Haymitch - Katniss and Peeta’s mentor. He effectively straddles the line of comic relief caricature and crafty counselor.
The games themselves are thrilling. Katniss and her fellow combatants are up against the devious designs of Heavensby, which come in waves. Poison fog, packs of angry baboons and raining blood are a few of the elements to overcome, each repeating in a pattern that reflects the government’s pounding of an iron fist. There’s also a sense of fighting the real enemy that manifests itself as more and more returning victors are killed off.
Catching Fire avoids middle-installment syndrome by building on the characters and themes from the first picture (handling them much more adeptly), while leaving us craving what’s to come. It’s a tight 2 hours and 26 minutes that doesn’t plod from plot point to plot point, but captures the heart of the story and depicts in an engaging, technically sound way. It’s an exciting blend of action and intellect that understands its criterion themes and how to communicate them. It’s also a lot of fun.