The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second in a planned four film series based on Suzanne Collins’ best selling Hunger Games trilogy, has the benefit of having twice the budget of it’s predecessor without the pesky business of world building that bogged the first film down in places, giving this superior sequel an immediacy and familiarity that allows the viewer to slip easily back into the world of Panem and the horror that is the Hunger Games.
The story picks up a few months after the end of the 74th Hunger Games… Katniss (Jennifer Lawerence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are back in District 12, preparing to embark on the requisite victory tour of Panem, the future dystopia governed from the all-powerful Capitol and lorded over by the manipulative President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Although the Capitol is all aflutter over the star-crossed lovers, the president knows better… and he immediately makes it clear to Katniss that he isn’t buying her story of sacrifice for loves sake. She is then tasked with convincing him that their love is real, and quelling the revolution fomenting in the more desperate and impoverished districts throughout the country.
When the tour begins, everyone involved realizes that there is far more afoot than they realized (communication between districts is limited, if not nil, so information is tightly controlled via the central government). As they begin their wildly inappropriate victory lap through the country, civility unravels, and our victors find themselves in the eye of an ever increasing storm.
Once a major twist is revealed (and no, I won’t spoil what that is here), we are introduced to a whole new arsenal of characters and some incredible actors show up to bring a ridiculous level of prestige to what is ultimately a genre film. Joining the cast is Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Amanda Plummer (Wiress), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), and an incredible performance from Jena Malone (Johanna Mason). Although I had no clue who Sam Clafin (Finnick Odair) was going into this, he brought his character to life in a way that honestly surprised me, and I look forward to see how his character evolves.
Taking over the directorial reins from Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) drops us back into District 12 with aplomb, ditching the shaky cam cinema-verite style and bringing us straight into the lives of Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and Haymitch with nary a line of exposition. Although there is a clear through-line in terms of visuals and tone, there seems to be much more confidence in each performance and in the choices made throughout the entire film.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games, there were many performances that felt stiff or unexplored due to the constraints of having to set up such a rich universe. Specifically, Elizabeth Banks gave us a fantastic Effie Trinket, and was able to deliver a couple of the best lines in the first film, but wasn’t able to dive into the depths of what made Effie tick (fortunately, the character is meant to be shallow and plastic). In Catching Fire, we get a far more nuanced version of Effie; shallow, but caring more for the people that she has now come to know as opposed to the previous version of herself that is shielded from any emotional connection to the tributes she is preparing to send to their eventual deaths. Watching as Effie struggles with genuine emotion, and not knowing how to behave in this most unusual of circumstances, allows Bank’s performance to shine through a metric ton of make-up and a foot or so of false eyelash. Often an actor can succumb to wig acting (see every performance in The Ten Commandments save Yul Brynner), but she manages to come through and deliver a magnificent rendering of an incredibly flawed individual.
I feel it’s almost passe at this point in saying that Jennifer Lawrence does a fantastic job in her role. Her career seems to be gilded with a star quality simply unseen these days. She can pull of glamorous, while also coming off as the girl-next-door. Funny, self-deprecating, intelligent… and best of all, she doesn’t bemoan the attention playing a fan favorite such as Katniss brings. She genuinely likes the character, and it shows every time she is on screen… and as the father of two young girls, hearing the female lead in a movie, who is torn between two potential loves in Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta, straight out telling Gale, “sorry, but I don’t have time for this shit, I have bigger fish to fry”, is more than refreshing… it’s down-right revolutionary.
One aspect of the story that both directors seemed to have dropped the ball on is how much media and the notion of reality television plays into the whole. Francis Lawrence (the director, not Jennifer… I originally wrote just Lawrence, realized I can’t do that) brings a small bit of that side to the tale in his depiction of the Capitol and the frenzy caused by the contestants of the games, and giving us more of a glimpse of the grotesqueries that inhabit this city of bread and circuses. In the novels we get the benefit of being in Katniss’ head, so we have plenty of opportunity for exposition… not so with the films… and I imagine it must be difficult to convey this angle of the narrative.
For those that have not read the novels, allow me to elucidate: The games are put on, not just as a punishment for the districts that revolted 75 years ago, but as entertainment for those in the Capitol who don’t have to send their children to die. Cameras follow each of the contestants and the control room can manipulate the audience as they see fit, much like our current reality shows. If someone is putting up a good fight, or is sympathetic in some way, rich people can then “sponsor” a contestant and send them gifts during the games with the hopes of increasing that person’s chances of winning. A person’s “likability” can make the difference between life and death, which is a brutal condemnation of our current preoccupation with celebrity and social media. Naturally, an intelligent tribute knows how to manipulate the crowd and the game, which is largely how Katniss was able to do what she did in the first… giving the people what they wanted, a romance, she was able to make it to the end. She manipulated the manipulator.
Another piece of the arc that Mr. Lawrence (there, that should clear it up) brought to the forefront is the political nature of The Hunger Games beyond the games themselves. As the tale progresses, each action taken by the protagonists result in greater and harsher reactions from the antagonists, which in turn leads to a greater game of cat and mouse. The president wants Katniss to behave in one way, she complies; but with help from others, that compliance becomes a statement in it’s own right. Mr. Lawrence found a way to make this more apparent with ever increasing stakes. In the first film, a dress might cause some eyebrows to be raised… in Catching Fire, a dress can have dire and deadly consequences for those making a point. Whoever said fashion was meaningless never lived in a world like Panem.
Overall… an incredibly entertaining film that has left me eager to see the final two installments, Mockingjay, Parts 1 & 2. Although I originally balked at the idea of turning the final novel into two movies a la Twilight and Harry Potter (largely because I disliked having The Hunger Games constantly lumped in with Twilight), my hope now is that many of the minor grievances I’ve had with how this story is being told will be ironed out with having a couple more hours to explore some of the more political and media driven facets that Collins’ novels so eloquently laid out for the reader.
In the meantime… may the odds be ever in your favor!
Settle down man, I’ve got a government to topple,
Cornelius J. Blahg