It’s been a year and a half since I first raved over The Hunger Games, the first installment of the film series based on the books by Suzanne Collins, of which I am a fan. An at once exhilarating, as well as brutal and emotional film, it also serves as an allegory of governmental oppression and society’s disturbing thirst of exploitative reality television. Clearly, anyone attempting to follow in the footsteps of Gary Ross was going to have a difficult task.
But attempt they did. Catching Fire, now under the direction of Francis Lawrence, goes even bigger than its predecessor. Despite being a fan of the first film, and of the books by Collins, I had reservations about how this second book would be adapted to satisfaction without rehashing material. Worry not. Bigger, better, and more brutal than the first, Catching Fire properly continues a great story and delves even deeper into the societal commentary.
The 74th Hunger Games have concluded. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), through an act of defiance, have arisen as victors. However, they’re not out of the woods yet. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), displeased with the final moments in the arena, and fearful of a possible uprising it may stir up, is onto Katniss’ schemes. At the conclusion of the annual victory tour the victors embark on every year, the Quarter Quell (an event that issues special rules to the event) stipulates that the tributes of each district for the 75th Hunger Games will be exclusively past victors. In short, Katniss and Peeta are going back into the arena…
Training, and working out plans and strategies for the games with their old mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the two get to know their opponents, and see who they’d consider as allies in the arena. These fellow victors include the likes of hot-shot pretty boy Finnick Odair of District 4 (Sam Claflin), proficient and smart thinker Beetee of District 3 (Jeffrey Wright), and possibly crazy Johanna Mason of District 7 (Jena Malone), the latter of whom having one scene that hilariously pushes the line of personal boundaries. As we get into the games, tensions grow, revolutionary spirit grows high, and the loyalties between allies are about to be tested.
If you’re seeking out this movie as a simple action flick, you’re likely to be disappointed. Much like the first film, action is not the point of this film. What is the point is to build emotion and tension in smaller sequences, as well as achieve a grand scope of the world of the film. Francis Lawrence may not be the most consistently good director, but he certainly has a knack for creating grand worlds that fully immerse you into their environment. As a sequel should do, it embraces everything that worked for its predecessor, and expands the scope of its world, its characters, and its themes. The movie manages to build an even stronger bond with all of the previously established characters, and features new ones that integrate with the world comfortably. Much of these include the aforementioned tributes Katniss goes up against in the arena, and the film gives them all a chance to shine in the spotlight without taking attention away from another. Of course, Lawrence is the standout, as she continues to add honest investment to her character, but that’s not to take away from her fellow returning actors like Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, and Stanley Tucci. Newcomers to the series, including Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, and Jena Malone are all excellent. Even Phillip Seymour Hoffman, here as newly appointed gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee, is great in a small role.
It isn’t until 90 minutes that we finally get to the games, and all of that time is perfectly spent building up the themes and commentary. Further enhancing the themes of the first film, the movie handles the look at revolution and hope very well, and serves as an allegory of communism without glossing over the issues. After all of this is gotten out of the way, and we’re in the arena, the tributes are all fighting for survival not only from other tributes, but now from the dangers of nature. These action scenes are all very intense, very well edited, fantastically shot (toning down the use of shaky-cam from the first film was a smart move), and the sound mix is used to hair-raising effect.
The one thing that I have against it is that the ending feels a bit rushed (this is admittedly a flaw of the movie’s source material as well), but if that’s the most I have against it, I have little to complain about. Catching Fire is far and away one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen all year, besting what was already a great first film, and turning it into something that puts other young adult book adaptations to shame. I’d be nothing if not excited for the final installment, Mockingjay… if the film weren’t planned to be split into two.
****1/2 / *****