The sequel to the surprisingly nuanced The Hunger Games, Catching Fire re-introduces us to the compelling Katniss Everdeen, one of the most intriguing literary/film heroines this side of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander. But as history has shown, it’s a slippery slope indeed when a sequel gets greenlit. My review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire after the jump.
It’s been a year since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) emerged victorious from the 74th annual Hunger Games, a battle to the death between the youth of the 12 districts of Panem, a dystopian nation born from the ashes of the former United States of America. Plagued by PTSD from her traumatic near-death experience, Katniss tries her best to put the experience behind her as she prepares to embark on a victory tour of the 12 districts with Peeta. Her ordeal is far from over though as the Machiavellian President Snow (Donald Sutherland) attempts to subvert Katniss’ image for his own ends as the oppressed masses of Panem begin to rally behind her as a possible symbol of revolution. Then there’s the matter of the 75th Hunger Games, which will draw its pool of contestants a little differently than all the games which preceded it.
Second instalments of trilogies can be unpredictable; for every Dark Knight, there’s an Iron-Man 2 and for every Empire Strikes Back, there’s an Attack of the Clones. Catching Fire is one of those rare sequels that manages to avoid almost all the pitfalls. It focuses on the aftermath of its predecessor without living in its shadow. It expands the boundaries of its story-telling without sacrificing character focus and emotional depth. And although it mimics some of the structure and beats of the first Hunger Games, Catching Fire still finds ways to make these feel fresh and unique.
More so than in the first film, Catching Fire is very much Jennifer Lawrence’s movie. She never once fails to convince us that she’s undergoing severe emotional distress as the steely, yet compassionate Katniss. Whenever some fresh atrocity is inflicted on innocent people, you can practically feel her anguish at the injustices of a system designed to brutally stamp out any kind of dissent. On the other hand, we also get the impression that she’s even more determined to keep those close to her out of harm as the stakes rise ever higher.
Lawrence is aided by an impressive cast, nearly all of whom manage to leave some kind of mark on the audience. As ever, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks and, in particular, Woody Harrelson are a hoot while Donald Sutherland exudes an almost avuncular menace as President Snow. Josh Hutcherson is also quietly solid as the steadfast Peeta. Think a less talkative Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. However, Liam Hemsworth still struggles a little with the underwritten role of Gale, Katniss’ sort-of boyfriend. The new cast members also hold their own. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright are welcome additions but special praise must go to Jena Malone as Johanna, one of the competitors in the 75th Hunger Games. Johanna embodies a playful rebelliousness as she runs rings around Katniss, Peeta and Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch in a brilliantly crafted scene in an elevator (the facial expressions of all concerned are priceless) and does everything she can to defy the establishment that put her in this mess once again.
As a newcomer to the series, director Francis Lawrence may have just crafted his finest film. He also does away with the hand-held look that was ubiquitous in the first film which will please many. Although there will always be a special place in my heart for Constantine, much of his work has been uneven and it’s good to see him tackle meatier material. There’s plenty of it to chew on this time around with a darker, more political tone while the seeds of a full-scale rebellion are being sown.
To sum up, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire offers the same tense, emotional and wonderfully satirical experience we could have hoped for while managing to subvert audience expectations, such as the dynamics between the contestants. This is definitely a movie that transcends the limitations of works aimed at the young adult demographic and, though there is indeed a love triangle, it’s still miles ahead of that other adaptation of that young adult novel about that damn sparkly vampire. If things keep on going the way they are, the next instalments may be something truly spectacular. Your move, Mockingjay Part 1.
By Johnson Hii
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer(s): Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks
Runtime: 146 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: November 21 2013; USA: November 22 2013