'Catching Fire' Beats the Odds

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
(USA, 146 min.)
Dir. Francis Lawrence, Writ. Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)
in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Photo credit: Murray Close

The odds weren’t in the favour of Catching Fire, but the second installment in the Hunger Game franchise is on par with the original film. The Hunger Games has even more street cred this time around now that Katniss (aka the consistently amazing Jennifer Lawrence) is an Oscar winner and is joined by some equally talented newcomers to the franchise like Jeffery Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The added pedigree (of which the franchise already had plenty) shows how this adaptation of the Suzanne Collins trilogy is in a league above most other teen lit fare. Catching Fire is, above all, solid and breathless entertainment, but it’s also a smart allegory with its finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. Despite having to meet the very high critical and commercial expectations set by the first film, Catching Fire holds its own.

Catching Fire, like any return to familiar terrain, has an inevitable sense of “been there, done that” as the script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt brings the audience back to District 12 and follows Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) back to the arena. Like a new season of Survivor, however, the crew behind Catching Fire has refreshed the world of The Hunger Games anew. The gamesmakers, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, put some new spins on the games to satisfy both the fans and politicians of Panem. They’re equally bloodthirsty pairs, but the one-man Tribal Council of President Snow (a coolly evil Donald Sutherland) wants to throw Katniss back in the ring and make an example of her for all the lowly citizens who were inspired by her defiant trick with the berries at the end of the first installment.

The ruse of this new round of The Hunger Games—its 75th edition—is that the reaping pool will consist solely of past victors. It’s Survivor: All Stars where Katniss has a target on her back like Richard Hatch. Not only is she the most beloved recent winner, but President Snow’s handy rigging of the games shift the odds away from her favour. (As the only female victor from District 12, it’s a given that she’ll join Peeta or Haymitch in the arena.)

Oddly enough, this round of The Hunger Games suffers only when Katniss and (spoiler alert) Peeta are back in battle. The reality TV show parallels continue with how The Hunger Games don’t necessarily become better now that the game is a bit fancier and more complicated. The world of the games is just as impressive as it was in the battle royal of the first film, but the games themselves lack the suspense and action to offer a payoff on par with the excellent buildup that precedes them.

Katniss and Peeta make a few allies in the arena on Haymitch’s advice. They’re joined by Finnick (Sam Claflin) and his elderly mentor Mags (an awkward Lynn Cohen), who seems to be even more baggage than the oft-straggling Peeta. Worthy friends and/or foes present themselves in a roster of new characters, although few of them amount to any action or confrontation, especially those characters who seem to be the most promising villains. What happens to the girl with the fangs? Or to the brother-sister duo who seem like major threats?

But maybe the fight in the arena isn’t supposed to be all fun and games this time around. “Since the last games, something’s different. I can see it,” says Katniss’s sister Prim before the elder Everdeen goes back to fight. Even the young girl, who was picked in the reaping before Katniss volunteered in film one, grasps the political dimension that has been added to the game this time around. Nobody’s really looking forward to the games aside from President Snow, for Katniss and Peeta’s grand finale in the last season has inspired the masses that they, too, can defy the oppressive Capital.

The Games aren’t as exciting this time around because the fight outside the arena is far more interesting. Catching Fire, thankfully, is less of an Occupy fable (we’ve had a few too many of those) and more of an intelligent fusion of Big Brother oppression and the culture fixation on reality television that has blurred the line life and entertainment. Catching Fire develops the dystopian allegory more fully than its predecessor did, and this tale of a simmering uprising will have audiences even more invested in the fate of Katniss and Peeta than they were the first time, especially now that Katniss has become a symbol of hope for citizens in the various districts of Panem.

 Lawrence gives another electrifying performance as Katniss. She develops one of the strongest, most fully realized female heroines in both teen-targeted cinema and genre moviemaking alike. She’s the Ellen Ripley for this generation as she carries The Hunger Games with an indomitable spirit. Katniss, above all, has Lawrence’s spunky, hugely GIF-able sass and youthful energy. It really is a marvel to see Hollywood’s hottest star take age-appropriate roles to a new level. J-Law is clearly having a ball, but by creating such a substantial character, she’s playing a role model both onscreen and off: she’s proof that a young woman can get ahead in showbiz without twerking.

While Lawrence is the main show of Catching Fire, she’s surrounding by a cast of worthy co-stars. Hutcherson is fun and likable as Peeta, who plays nicely with the inversion of typical onscreen gender roles in his pairing with Lawrence. Katniss is the sturdier of the two tributes from District 12, wearing the pants both in and outside the arena while Peeta pines for her. One needs the character of the other to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses, though, so the pairing of Katniss and Peeta helps give the Hunger Games trilogy its contemporary flair. Both the returning and new cast members are worthy assets, too, especially Elizabeth Banks as the flamboyantly Lady Gaga-ish Effie Trinket and Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games commentator Caesar.

Caesar does less of his play-by-play this time around, although he does lots of Oprah-level theatrics beforehand, as Catching Fire opts for less of the mechanics and culture of the games than the first Hunger Games did. Catching Fire doesn’t feature the original commentary of the first film, nor is there much of the Truman Show-y insight into the production of the games, aside from Plutarch’s conspiring with Snow. (Which is too bad since Hoffman is a stronger presence for a gamesmaker than Wes Bentley is.) This is more of a straightforward adaptation than the last film, so director Francis Lawrence restricts the drama primarily to the arena once the games begin. Lawrence also keeps the action steady this time around by avoiding the shaky camerawork and disorienting editing that provided an engaging (if polarizing) flair to the visceral yet PG-13 violence of the original film.

Catching Fire might be more generic than The Hunger Games from a perspective of aesthetics and crafts, but Lawrence capitalizes fully on the franchise’s two greatest assets: the powerful star presence of Jennifer Lawrence and the potent allegory of Katniss’s spirit. Catching Fire should satisfy fans of the franchise and leave them hungrily on edge for Mockingjay with the film’s nail-biting finale. Catching Fire beats the odds of franchise filmmaker and delivers fully on the expectations set by its predecessor.

Rating: ★★★★  (out of ★★★★★)

Catching Fire is currently playing in wide release.