Closeup on Jennifer Lawrence’s face in the snow as Katniss Everdeen, her glance communicating the burden her character bears internally without saying a word. The opening image of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is enough to set this action fantasy sequel apart, not only from its decent first chapter, but also from all the other movies that influence or resemble it (especially Japan’s Battle Royale, its closest “illegitimate cousin”). Lawrence, star of Winter’s Bone, was already a promising young actress when she was cast as the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ book series, but since then her talent has grown to the point of winning an Oscar and and a Golden Globe for her performance in The Silver Linings Playbook. That development benefits Catching Fire and raises it to more than just a simple people-killing-people flick.
It helps that the adapted source material is pretty good to begin with. If the first Hunger Games novel was the Star Wars of books about the oppressed society of Panem, Catching Fire is its Empire Strikes Back: self-sufficient, larger in scale, darker in its narrative and marked with the possibility that maybe this time its heroes may not survive. Writers Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) and Michael deBruyn (professional pseudonym for Michael Arndt of Little Miss Sunshine fame) recognize this and cut some corners off the plot, but manage to preserve the essence of the story.
The men in Katniss’ life: Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and President Snow (Donald Sutherland)
in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. (SOURCE: Lionsgate.)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in a Nutshell
We begin with Katniss, archery savant and “Girl on Fire”, while attempting the quiet life in District 12 with her family and her “more than a friend” Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) after surviving the 74th edition of the Hunger Games, a gladiator event organized by the oppressive Capital of Panem to keep in line all the districts under its command. However, as if the trauma of having eliminated 22 young warriors wasn’t enough, her ingenious solution to create a tie and “win” the Games together with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)—her fellow District 13 tribute and on-camera “love interest”—has been interpreted as an act of rebellion by shadowy President Snow (Donald Sutherland), as well as many citizens from the other districts. The plot of the book and the film examines the impact of Katniss’ actions and the new choice that she must make: to either serve as an ambassador for the Capital for the safety of her loved ones or become a symbol of revolution and liberation for the enslaved citizens of this post-apocalyptic continent.
Snow, smart and ruthless, plans to give her no choice at all, so he hires Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to plan the next edition of the Games with a twist: all participants will be selected from the list of previous winners, which includes Katniss, Peeta and their mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), as well as Finnick Odair from District 4 (Sam Claflin), the youngest game champion ever; Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), District 3 tech and booby trap experts; Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), uninhibited champion from District 7; and Old Mags (Lynn Cohen), a mute voluntary from District 4 who trained Finnick for his original tournament.
Those in charge of maintaining the illusion: Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence),
Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. (SOURCE: Lionsgate.)
A Cast That’s Game
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) does an excellent job here of balancing the drama and action in a film of extended length—two and a half hours long!—that manages not to be tiresome. It’s a pleasant surprise to discover that the conflicts in Catching Fire are mostly psychological and equally as violent as its fight scenes, thanks in large part to the caliber of its actors.
Sutherland (An American Haunting) expertly emanates the threat that his Snow lacked in the original film. Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) takes the opportunity to develop her Effie Trinket, chaperone for the tributes from District 12, from superficial comic relief to a human being with feelings. Stanley Tucci (Margin Call) is entertaining during the weaker scenes with his Caesar Flickerman, host of the Games and a hopeless showman. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Heavensbee, who seems determined not to repeat Seneca Crane’s mistakes from the previous Games. Rocker Lenny Kravitz gives a little more solemnity this time to his interpretation of Cinna, fashion stylist and friend to Katniss.
As Johanna, Jenna Malone seems to be recycling her character from Sucker Punch, only this time it actually fits the film perfectly. Patrick St. Esprit (Super 8) seems to channel the evil side of Clint Eastwood in his small and powerful role as commander Romulus Thread, District 12’s new security chief. My only peeve is that Catching Fire features great actors such as Lynn Cohen (Munich) as Mags and Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Claudius Templesmith, only to give them little screen time. That, plus two or three scenes that make little sense after a certain surprise revelation during the climax (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which).
Laying Down the (J)Law
Now, none of the film works without the excellent performance Jennifer Lawrence, who has rightfully earned the privilege of headlining two successful film franchises, this and the X-Men series. I shall spoil nothing except to say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ends just as it begins with a closeup on Katniss Everdeen’s eyes. What each of those looks communicates says all we need to know and more about her character arc and makes us look forward to the next part of the saga. Details like that make this blockbuster a small wonder.
Movie title: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Movie description: The second chapter in the saga based on Suzanne Collins' books is bigger and better than the original in every way.
Date published: 2013-11-28
Director(s): Francis Lawrence
Actor(s): Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Amanda Plummer, Stanley Tucci
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction