At the risk of hyperbole, I’d say The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does for young adult novel adaptations what The Dark Knight did for comic book movies. Like Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film, Catching Fire is that rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor in every way: the performances are more convincing, the writing is sharper, the pacing faster, and the stakes greater. In short, this is a livelier, more aggressive picture. Above all, Catching Fire confirms, if it weren’t already established in the minds of fans, that The Hunger Games isn’t just another teenage wish fulfillment fantasy (see Twilight) but A-grade mainstream cinema and the undisputed heir to the throne vacated by the Harry Potter series.
I attribute a lot of these improvements to director Francis Lawrence, who took over the reins of the franchise from Gary Ross. Although Ross’ contribution to the series remains invaluable – he was the one who pushed for the casting of Jennifer Lawrence – it was evident that he was woefully out of his element when it came to world building and creating a convincing universe for his characters to live in. Additionally, his inexperience with genre pictures and crafting suspense were among the major reasons why The Hunger Games felt like a missed opportunity.
Lawrence, on the other hand, is a different story. With his rich background in directing commercials, music videos, and science fiction, the filmmaker comes to the series with an arsenal of genre experience. As a result, although the world of Panem felt small and constricting in the first film, it feels vast and expansive this time around. Lawrence’s experience with action films (I Am Legend, Constantine) also comes in handy during the film’s kinetic second half. What was dull, headache-inducing, and disorienting in the first film is now suspenseful, exciting, and much easier to follow. Even though the film runs at a bloated two hours and 20 minutes, Lawrence keeps the events moving at such an aggressive pace that it never feels dull.
Lawrence is aided by the fact that Catching Fire is the second film in the franchise, meaning it enters the fray with the advantage of not having to deal with the formulaic constraints of the origin picture. This allows Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) to jettison all the recaps and associated fat from their terrific script and dovetail right into the juice of the story.
It’s been a little under a year since Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) defied the Capital by breaking the rules to become the first-ever joint victors of The Hunger Games. Their controversial win made the duo (and especially Katniss) symbols of defiance among the 12 districts and beloved icons among the brainless masses of the Capital. It also made her the target of Panem’s totalitarian government led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). After a disastrous victory tour incites riots among the districts, Snow concludes that killing Katniss would only render her a martyr and make things worse. Using a master plan hatched by his new gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (a phenomenal Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Snow announces a special edition of the games in which contestants will be pulled from a pool of previous victors. The end-game of this plan is to ensure Katniss is killed in front of the greatest audience and thus kill-off the uprising permanently.
Despite following the same basic format of its predecessor –opening with the desolate surroundings of District 12, following it with the long midsection in the Capital, and ending it with the games – Lawrence, Beaufoy, and Arndt coat the story with a level of panache that avoids having the film feel like a rehash. They accomplish this by exploring more of the Capital and its bizarre denizens, bringing the source material’s themes of rebellion, government suppression, and independence to the forefront, by building on the characters introduced in the first film, as well as introducing a host of exciting new ones. The supporting cast in particular, benefits the greatest this time around as they finally resemble integral pieces to push the protagonist’s journey forward– sort of like the supporting characters in the Harry Potter series.
Jennifer Lawrence, who by all accounts was the only memorable thing about the first film, continues her string of acclaimed performances with another rounded portrayal of the series’ iconic protagonist. Katniss is a person who became the face of a growing revolution because of her courage and independence but also by happenstance. Her goal has always been survival and Lawrence embodies her spirit whole-heartedly. The filmmakers also rightly chose to focus on her struggle rather than the silly romantic triangle with Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Among the new additions, Jena Malone is the standout as Johanna Mason, a violent and off-her-rocker contestant who looks like she just walked off the set of Battle Royale. Sam Claflin is suitably charismatic and cocky as Finnick, an enigmatic Matthew McConaughey doppelganger whose motivations remain murky until the film’s cliffhanger ending. The ending of the film is fascinating in and of itself —it’s really unusual for a massive blockbuster of this kind. It’s a genuine surprise that might not work for some but it got my blood heated for the next movie—a reminder of exactly the kind of effect that sequels must produce to solidify successful franchises.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone
Producers: Nina Jacobson, John Kilik
Running time: 146 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language