Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth.
Directed by: Francis ‘no-relation’ Lawrence.
Plot: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.
Catching Fire really delivers as the second instalment of the Hunger Games series (based on the novels by Suzanne Collins). Of course, sequels generally have it easy, since they don’t have to introduce the audience to a fictional society/world or any of the main characters, but there are other reasons this film outshines its predecessor. Francis Lawrence directs well, the script is good (almost identical to the dialogue in the book), and there’s enough here to satisfy most tastes: action, tension, romance, politics and a pinch of fantasy.
Katniss and Peeta are set to embark on their victory tour of Panem, after winning the 74th Hunger Games. Before they leave, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), travels to District 12 to remind Katniss that the only thing keeping the triumphant couple alive is their sometimes not-so-fictional romance, and warns her to crank up the public displays of affection. Snow’s real problem is that Katniss and Peeta (but mostly Katniss) have sparked rebellions with their win, and are now a symbol of hope among the oppressed inhabitants of Panem, especially in the inferior districts. Even sticking firmly to Snow’s script on the victory tour is not enough to quell the uprisings sufficiently. So, hoping to restore order, Snow asks new Head Playmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to reap the champions for the 75th Games from the existing pool of victors, making the “Quarter Quell” his convenient excuse. Katniss is District 12’s only female victor, so she is automatically selected, and Peeta volunteers to take Haymitch’s place. Back in training, we’re introduced to an array of new champions, all with absolutely nothing to lose, and all willing to do almost anything to get back at the Capitol after years of oppression. One small group of champions band together, united against Snow, instead of fighting to kill each other.
The biggest strength of Catching Fire is characterisation; many characters are more multi-dimensional. Katniss, as well as being her usual intense self and suffering from PTSD (which sadly isn’t explored enough), has more to fight for this time around. She’s not worried about her own life; she’s worried about the safety of her family. On top of all that, she’s struggling with conflicting feelings towards Peeta and Gale. Lawrence, of course, plays this with grounded ease, and makes Katniss a believable, likeable, cool heroine. Peeta, thankfully, is braver and more macho in this chapter of the story (well done, Suzanne Collins, for creating the wettest, feeblest male hero in literary history). He’s heavily involved in the action here, and is able to measure up more evenly with the rest of the male cast. And, of course, there’s Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who forms the third side of the love triangle. In Catching Fire we see Katniss and Gale’s feelings for each other intensify, which certainly complicates things. Gale vows to fight for liberation in any way necessary, which lands him in rather a lot of bother with the Peacekeepers in District 12 (it’s horrible!). We see many sides to him, which is nice.
We are also re-introduced to some much loved ‘secondary’ characters. For me, the champion supporting star is Elizabeth Banks, whose acting really flourishes in Catching Fire. She returns as the mad, simultaneously-inhuman-and-human Effie Trinket. Tainted by the Capitol way of life, poor Effie finds herself bereft when reality catches up to her and makes her question everything she’s ever known. Putting her cherished (in her own strange way) Katniss and Peeta back into the arena is already taking its toll, and there will hopefully be more on that in Girl on Fire (as there is more in the book). It’s great to see her character developing here, as in the first film she comes across as superficial, clueless and alien. Here, we see her tragically recognising the pitfalls of her beloved society (perhaps for the first time?) and her true emotions break the surface once or twice, making her much more likeable. Of course, she still has her moments (“This isn’t very festive!”). Woody Harrelson returns as Haymitch, the champions’ mentor, who suffers from poor mental health as a result of his own stint in the arena. Stanley Tucci is back as Caesar Flickerman, an eccentric TV personality and interviewer who takes quite a liking to the ‘happy couple’. Lenny Kravitz plays Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, who joins the revolution in the best way he can – he’s a favourite among Hunger Games fans.
What’s not so good? Some of the CGI isn’t quite up to scratch. The monkeys, though terrifying, are also very obviously not real. Although this one is far more graphic and grim than the first, it’s still not nearly realistic enough – these films could do so much better with a higher age certificate. I don’t think the arena is used quite to its full potential, though it’s still very good.
One of the great things about these films is that there’s a lot of food for thought, if you want to look for it. The audience can either explore or ignore various metaphors as they see fit. None of the messages are pushed to forcefully, so the story appeals to a wider audience. It offers up a lot more depth than most other young adult adaptations, with equal doses of action and storyline. It’s 146 minutes long, but it flies over, it’s never boring, and it doesn’t do that thing that most long films do when you think they’re going to end five or six times before they actually do. Four out of five stars.