The term “sequel” is usually met with derision in the movie world. However when done well a sequel can not only continue the story laid down in the earlier movie, it can actually be used to comment directly on that movie and lead to better understanding of it. Catching Fire enters that rarefied field reserved for very few movies; it is better than the original. This is not a slight on Gary Ross’s movie, if anything I think The Hunger Games was severely underrated. Ross introduced us to the world of Panem by showing us what the reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen sees. The cinéma vérité style worked well to both blur the violence of children murdering children but also to capture the disorientation and adrenaline Katniss felt in the arena. Everything for her was off balance and new and immediate. It worked well in the first movie, but in Catching Fire the scope has to expand and director Francis Lawrence (and a larger budget) are able to capture that widened playing field enhancing the story considerably. As such, Catching Fire is darker and more epic than The Hunger Games.
It has been a year since Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark “won” the 74th Hunger Games, and the experience has scarred her considerably. While out hunting she has flashes of those she killed in the games and while she doesn’t know it, we see she is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Worse, the desperate gambit she pulled to save herself and Peeta is now being seen by the downtrodden districts as an act of defiance and the first sparks of rebellion are starting to be struck. Through the machination of President Snow it is decreed that the 75th games will be played by past victors, including Peeta and Katniss. A new game, adult competitors, and a new Games Maker, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, ensure that this Hunger Games will be unlike any that came before.
At two and a half hours Catching Fire takes its time getting to the games. This time it doesn’t have to set the scene so the movie is populated with small touches and sly commentary on the world of Panem as well as it’s reflection on our own fame and reality TV obsessed culture. What really helps Catching Fire exceed the first film is a terrific supporting cast, and much more screen time for the returning actors. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson especially are given more to do, and deliver a more nuanced performance. Josh Hutcherson in particular shines as Peeta, as the character is much more rounded this time. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great as the sinister Games Maker Plutarch Heavensbee. However the real surprises are Jena Malone and Sam Clafflin, as Johanna Mayson and Finnick Odair. These returning victors bring a charisma to the other players that was sorely lacking the first go round.
Johanna in particular is a force to be reckoned with. She is a shadow of what Katniss could become: a pissed off devil-may-care firebrand that has nothing but contempt for the games and the Capitol and doesn’t care who sees it. During her broadcast interview segment before the games she defiantly declares “Fuck this, and fuck anyone who had anything to do with this!” Now, this is a PG-13 film so the film bleeps the offending f bombs by showing it within the context of the Panem broadcast. Yes, reflecting our own bizarre puritanical standards wanton violence is perfectly fine entertainment but you better damn well not see them swear. This is a civilized society after all.
Continuing in that vein is the social commentary that was evident in the book series as well as the first movie. The 1% are seen gorging themselves on food, and then given a drink that helpfully makes them vomit so they can continue to do so. It is greed and excess run amok, and juxtaposed with the scenes of tyranny and squalor in the 12 districts it is easy to hate the Capitol and it’s citizens. Which is why one of the true master strokes of the series may be in the casting of Donald Sutherland as the brutal President Snow. I honestly can’t recall the last time we were given a true villain to root against that you so desperately want to see get his just rewards but also look forward to seeing him continue to torment our heroes. He’s not an anti-hero, he has no redeeming qualities, he’s a tyrannical despot. But Sutherland doesn’t play him as a cartoon, he is firm in his beliefs for what is best for the country. The scenes with Snow and Katniss absolutely crackle with intensity and both actors are great fun to see going head to head.
Few actresses are as natural on screen as Jennifer Lawrence. Much has been written about her already. I will only say that she is one of the most self effacing, fearless actresses working today. As written Katniss is a very difficult person to like. She is headstrong but also absolutely falling apart after her experiences in the games. Lawrence finds that balance and is able to show Katniss as both wounded and defiant at the same time. It is a terrific performance and one that should be remembered come award season (but won’t be recognized).
I’ve written nearly a thousand words and haven’t even touched on the games themselves. If you’ve read the book you know what is in store. The big set pieces from the book are intact. For the uninitiated, this game is completely unlike the one from the first movie. Just as exciting but for very different reasons that I will not spoil here. There is much more interaction with the other competitors and alliances form around Katniss and Peeta. This time there is no feigned love story for the cameras, the competitors are trying only to survive against odds that Katniss knows are not in their favor.
Much more than a cookie cutter sequel, Catching Fire is an outstanding movie. It has upped my expectations considerably for the two part Mockingjay in 2014 and 2015. Regardless of my trepidation in splitting that 400 page novel in to two movies I’m confident that this team can deliver the ending the series deserves.
Catching Fire is one of the best movies of the year, don’t miss it.