The short review: With slick direction, smarter writing, and a willingness to dive deeper into the books’ dystopian themes, Catching Fire is the sequel that Hunger Games fans deserve, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The long review: For all of its aspirations of being the YA equivalent of Battle Royale, The Hunger Games was an oddly bloodless affair, especially strange considering its centerpiece is attractive teens battling to the death in a televised arena bloodsport. Despite its attempts to pack in healthy amounts of emotion, subtext, and character work, the film felt like a bit of a pale imitation of the book, a highlights reel that was thankfully anchored by the talents of the now Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the first film; I did, but I am pleased to see that Catching Fire finds itself in steadier hands – quite literally – as the director’s chair was passed from Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) to Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), resulting in a film that is more sure of itself, its content, and its characters.
Picking up several months after the events of the first film, District 12’s most infamous lovebirds, Katniss and Peeta, are living in Capitol-subsidized luxury housing on Victors’ Village, but still find themselves haunted by the memories of what they had to do to survive in the arena. Wracked with guilt and PTSD, Katniss has withdrawn into herself, spending a lot of time in the woods playing “will they, wont they?” with her childhood pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Unfortunately, Katniss and her TV husband, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are soon shuffled out on a gruesome PR tour to visit the families of those Tributes who didn’t survive the Games and to give hope to the increasingly rebellious districts.
For many, myself included, the second book stands out as the series highlight. The Hunger Games whetted our appetite for destruction and made us fall in love with Katniss, but Catching Fire sees the girl coming into her own and gives us a sense that she is going to serve a purpose much larger than we realize. She is a galvanizing figure, a lightning rod to the oppressed, downtrodded people of Panem, and the film takes great lengths to show us how she has transformed from a celebrity into a symbol of something more – of revolution.
Obviously, this isn’t going to fly with the Capitol’s party line, resulting in a private visit/threat against her family’s lives from President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Along with the newly appointed head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (a delightful Philip Seymour Hoffman), taking over for the dearly departed Seneca Crane, Snow and his cronies concoct a scheme to deal with the problem – The Hunger Games: Celebrity All-Stars. After all, it’s the 75th Hunger Games, making it a special “Quarter Quell”, so what better way to garner big time ratings than by reaping the pool of Tributes from each district’s surviving victors. This is something that has never been done before and something so cruel that it could only happen on reality TV. I’ll take any excuse I can get for more Caesar Flickerman (the inimitable Stanley Tucci), but this is pretty horrific news, especially when you realize Katniss isn’t meant to be a two-time winner.
Structurally, the film is nearly identical to the first one, which is a point of contention for some – those who have not read the books, I’d imaigne – but it never really bothered me. It is parallel in structure, yes, but this is a wiser Katniss and Peeta, and they are fighting for something more than just their lives. Tonally, Lawrence does a terrific job of matching what Gary Ross had already established in the first film and expands upon the utter hopelessness of Panem to create a true sense of the fascist city-state, a pressure cooker of misery with revolution roiling just under the surface.
One of my biggest issues with the previous film is that both Peeta and Gale felt flat. Katniss/Lawrence had a stellar supporting cast to help her sell Suzanne Collins’ bleak dystopia, but her romantic leads seemed wooden and lifeless by comparison. Perhaps they’ve reviewed the game tape, though, because, this time around, both Hutcherson and Hemsworth stepped up to the plate, making their scalene love triangle seem more believable than it previously did.
The true standouts of the new film though are the new crop of Victors, particularly the ones that spend time with Katniss. Sam Claflin has a healthy amount of screen time as Finnick Odair, a handsome, charismatic narcissist that knows his way around a trident. Many fans weren’t quite sure what to make of Claflin’s casting, but after seeing Catching Fire, I imagine they will happily transition to capturing his highly expressive face and charming performance to live on in GIF form.
Other newcomers like Jeffrey Wright as Beetee and Jena Malone as Johanna Mason are pitch perfect. Instantly memorable and true to the book, they give Lawrence quite a bit to play off during their return to the Hunger Games arena. The unstoppable trio of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a surprisingly affecting Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) are back and continue to deliver crowdpleasing performances, doling out moments of quiet, introspective emotion and eye-rolling humor in equal measure. If you’re heading off to face what seems like certain death, these are definitely the people you want along for the ride.
The Hunger Games has always been a series that’s been very sure of itself, and Catching Fire wisely builds on the confidence gained from its massively successful debut to keep pushing the envelope of quality further and further. Sleeker, smarter, and stronger in nearly every way, Catching Fire is a worthy successor to the twisting and turning tale of Katniss Everdeen. Explosive action, solid performances, and emotional gutpunches make for an awful lot of fun and a nice reprieve from the sometimes overly heavy Oscar bait that dominates this release corridor. If someone else tries to claim your ticket, you’d be well served to stand up and volunteer.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is in theaters now. Have you seen the film? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.