by Steve Habrat
Last year, a little movie called The Hunger Games snuck into theaters and became a monster hit. Remaining number one for several weeks and earning rave reviews from both audiences and critics, it was clear which young-adult-novel-turned-blockbuster-movie was filling the space left open by the Harry Potter series and the concluding Twilight series. With Lionsgate clearly understanding they have a major moneymaker on their hands, the studio furiously got to work on a follow-up that is dropping a little over a year after the first film. Among the big blockbusters bringing 2013 to a close is director Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, an inevitably darker middle chapter that is surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining, something you’d never imagine from a film that was slapped together in a rush for a big payday. With star Jennifer Lawrence still bringing down the house as the girl on fire herself, Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire allows the talented young star to dig into the trauma left over from the first film and in the process, give audiences a resilient heroine who refuses to go down without a fight. I’ll take Miss Everdeen’s rebellious spunk over Bella Swan’s angsty high school drama any day, and it appears that quite possibly America is feeling the same way!
Catching Fire picks up several months after the 74th annual Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) still coming to terms with some of the horrors that she saw during the games. On the eve of the Hunger Games Victory Tour, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss and her family. President Snow warns Katniss that she needs to continue with her fake romance with fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) in order to calm the unrest brewing in the districts. If she doesn’t comply, Snow will kill both her family and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), the mineworker Katniss has been carrying on a secret romance with. Katniss agrees to continue on with the charade, but as the Victory Tour gets underway, she sees what her win has meant to the twelve districts and the brutality being carried out by Snow’s forces. With rebellion on the horizon, Snow and new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new way to eliminate Katniss and crush the hopes of the twelve districts. They decide to recruit all the previous winners from past games to compete against each other, drawing out some of the most dangerous contestants in the area. Realizing that Peeta and Katniss have their backs against the wall, mentors Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) get to work preparing the kids for this new game.
At nearly two and a half hours long, you could almost split Catching Fire into two different movies. The first half of the film dares to be intimate with the trauma that Katniss and Peeta suffer from and how their lives have been changed forever. They are yanked from district to district, paraded in front of grieving families who were forced to give up one of their own to the games, while scraggly town citizens look on with a mixture of awe and resentment. One particular scene has Katniss tearfully recalling her fallen friend Rue, a tearjerker moment nicely followed by that famed whistle and three finger salute. It is within these scenes that we get to see the extent of Snow’s brutality and manipulation, as his masked forces, known as Peacekeepers, pump bullets into the heads of anyone who dares show hints of rebellion. They flood into districts, trash homes and markets, and install a whipping post for anyone who acts out. As the anger simmers and director Lawrence ventures to the lavish capital where elite citizens, who sip drinks to purge their full bellies in order to eat more, rub elbows, you’ll begin to see this is going the route of class warfare. There appears to be no middle class, just those with everything and those with almost nothing. It’s heavy stuff for a young adult story, especially when Snow and Heavensbee begin discussing how to control the masses. They devise puff pieces that divert the attention of the public, blinding them to the violence and oppression spilling into the streets. It’s within this first hour that Catching Fire really does ignite, effectively earning its right to brood and scowl.
As we enter the second hour of Catching Fire, we begin meeting all sorts of different characters that seem to be introduced simply so we know who the hell they are in the third film. They are all characters that we want more from (Jenna Malone’s Johanna Mason, Amanda Plummer’s Wiress, Lynn Cohens’s Mags, to name a few), but sadly, Lawrence is forced to cover so much ground that he just can’t quite balance everything out. He has to maintain focus on Katniss and Peeta as they battle for their lives on a tropical island with as many manipulated threats as well as flesh and blood threats. There are spots where the pacing seems to stall as the contestants attempt to make sense of a lightning tree, poisonous CGI fog, CGI mandrills, and, yes, CGI tidal waves—computerized threats that drown out the human dangers that prowl that tangled mess of vines and leaves. Furthermore, the film asks us to really care when several secondary characters are killed; something that is extremely difficult considering that we have barely been gives the chance to get to know some of them. When several of the contestants finally group together to stay alive and more secrets emerge from the island itself, things manage to perk up and the thrills once again pack their punch in the grim final stretch.
As far as the A-list cast is concerned, Jennifer Lawrence is top dog once again. She’s a feisty heroine who isn’t afraid to let the world see a few tears stream down her face. Whether she is in the concrete streets of one of the districts or in the sweltering heat of the island, she remains the poised hellraiser that we fell in love with in the first film. At times, the script threatens to allow a Twilight-esque love story take control of her character, Lawrence places her character’s love life on the back burner, something that is solidly believable considering the harsh realities of the world she inhabits. Hutcherson’s Peeta is still the softie with clear feelings for Katniss, feelings that go beyond a simple friendship. Hemsworth is still underused as Gale, the beefy blue-collar mineworker who swoons for Katniss and isn’t afraid to fight back against the ruthless Peacekeepers. Banks and Harrelson are still as colorful as ever as fashionista Effie and drunken Haymitch, the eccentric mentors to Peeta and Katniss. Sutherland is still commanding as the calculating dictator Snow, who is willing to kill as many people as he needs to in order to keep his citizens in line. Hoffman is equally cruel and savage as Heavensbee, the ruthless new Gamekeeper that will stop at nothing to make sure Katniss perishes in the game. Other newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as the brainy Beetee, Plummer as Beetee’s sidekick Wiress, Jena Malone as the axe-wielding Johanna, and Sam Clafin as the charming new ally Finnick.
Compared to the original film, Catching Fire expands its scope and improves its special effects, but there are places where the computerized wizardry still looks dated. The sprawling shots of the Panem capital look great, the fire that was ablaze on Katniss’s dress has improved, and the futuristic shuttles the glide above the capital are convincing, but the poisonous fog looks cheap, the tidal waves appear rushed, and a spinning portion of the island looks way too cartoonish for its own good. One aspect that I am particularly torn over is the way the film ends, in a “to be continued…” style that doesn’t allow this installment any sense of closure, something I found immensely infuriating. However, despite leaving the door wide open, I did admire the way the film sprung multiple twists and turns in the story in such a short period of time, and I particularly liked the final blow that is sure to leave members of the audience gasping in shock. Overall, while the second half may pale in comparison to the first and some of the characters may be left a bit underdeveloped, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still rewards with a smart script, a darker tone, and a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Bring on round three!