A film review by Craig J. Koban November 29, 2013  



2013, PG-13, 146  mins.


Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen  /   Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark  /  Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne  /  Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair  /  Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket  /  Jena Malone as Johanna Mason  /  Stanley Tucci as Caeser Flickerman  /  Willow Shields as Primrose Everdeen  /  Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy  /  Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee  /  Donald Sutherland as President Snow  /  Amanda Plummer as Wiress  /  Lenny Kravitz as Cinna

Directed by Francis Lawrence Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins

To quote its entire title, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE – the second film in the series based, in turn, on Suzanne Collins’ massively popular literary franchise – does what all great sequels should do.  I found 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES to be a somewhat intriguing, but ultimately middling example of speculative science fiction, but along comes this follow-up that more thoroughly nurtures and expands upon the core ideas and themes presented in Collins’ original books.  

Muck akin to, say, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, CATCHING FIRE is more satisfyingly darker, edgier, and places its characters in morally dicey predicaments that tests their fortitude.  Moreover, this new film does not so much rehash the story of its prequel; rather, it more fully explores Katniss Everdeen’s plight, and in the process this makes for a more richly compelling and involving film than what came before. 

In case you forget, the first HUNGER GAMES film focused on a dreary dystopian future of what remains of North America called Panem, which is ruled over by a totalitarian and cruel central government .  It’s made up of "The Capital," where all of the richest one per cent live, and is overseen by the soft-spokenly despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  The rest of the 99 per cent live in dilapidated and poor districts.  To ensure that the lowly peasants from these districts don’t attempt an overthrow of the government, the Capital has yearly broadcast reality shows called ‘The Hunger Games” where one child from each district is chosen to do a battle to the death contest…all for the clamoring and ravenous viewers of the Capital.  The games, in essence, are supposed to numb the districts into submission, making its denizens think that they have no real power over the Capital.  However, when Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) made it through the 74th Hunger Games alive with her friend, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) through some deceptive means, it made her not only a figure of worship to her people, but also a threat to the powers that oversee Panem. 

CATCHING FIRE deals with the aftermath of the aforementioned contest, and when we hook back up with Katniss she is less a proud and headstrong victor than she is a deeply wounded and anxiety plagued young woman, suffering from what’s clearly post-traumatic stress disorder.  Nonetheless, Katniss has risen to the level of a folk hero for her impoverished people, which makes President Snow wanting to take vengeful action.  Realizing that Katniss’ newfound celeb status could help fuel a fire for a rebellion, Snow decides to coerce both her and Peeta to go on a goodwill tour – essentially a propaganda campaign - of the districts to relay how great and powerful Panem and the Capital are; basically, Snow’s idea is to make the districts hate Katniss for her support of the government, but as the tour progresses it’s clear that the people have other ideas. 



Snow realizes – with the assistance of his right hand man/game designer (series newcomer Phillip Seymour Hoffman) – that Katniss must die, but under just the right circumstances.  Snow concocts a whole new Hunger Games, a “Quarter Quell” that involves re-drafting past winners of the games to appear in the deadly contest yet again as new tributes.  Thusly, both Katniss and Peeta find themselves being forced against their wills to appear in the ultimate winner-take-all gladiatorial contest, but this time against a group of seasoned and highly dangerous adversaries.  Snow, of course, hopes that this will be the games that will officially rid the world of Katniss forever, and, in turn, stop the district uprising once and for all.  However, Katniss has more than a few tricks up her sleeve to ensure her survival. 

One of the finest aspects of this sequel is the change of man behind the director’s chair.  Gary Ross, a truly great dramatic filmmaker that, frankly, did not have the faculty for action and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, helmed the first film.  Entering the series now is Francis Lawrence, who previously made CONSTANTINE and the terribly underrated I AM LEGEND, and his presence can be immediately felt.  Gone are Ross’ loose and jerky handheld photography and in now is Lawrence’s’ steady and focused aesthetic.  CATCHING FIRE is just as grim looking of a film as its predecessor, but this time Lawrence’s camera allows us to linger more fully on this unique world, especially with the capital of Panem, a disgustingly decadent Roman-like megatropolis where its citizens all dress like they’ve ordered the most gaudy outfits from a Lady Gaga catalogue.  Lawrence simply makes CATCHING FIRE feel more alive, full-bodied, and viscerally engaging than what Ross brought to the table. 

We have great screenwriters on board here too, like Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) and Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, oddly credited as Michael deBruyn) and this tandem really dives headfirst into not only the series' already established mythology, but also with delving more fully into the series themes of government control, rebellion, the disgruntled underbelly of society, and the fascination with the rabid cult of celebrity culture worship. The whole socio-political conflict was all but just sketchily developed in the first HUNGER GAMES, but here it feels more agreeably thought out and cultivated.  Even Katniss herself is more fully rounded as a multi-faceted reluctant hero this go-around, seeing as she struggles with comprehending and understanding what a powerful symbol of hope she has become.  On top of that, she also has to deal with the personally agonizing mission of secretly relaying false hope to her people via Snow’s controlled victory tour, which makes the whole conflict between her and Snow that much more fascinating.  

It’s noteworthy that Lawrence never makes Katniss an emotionally and physically indestructible wonder woman with an answer/solution for every dilemma.  She may be an inordinately gifted archer that can defend herself against enemies twice her size and strength, but underneath it all resides a flawed and conflicted women suffering from a deep crisis of conscience.  Lawrence, a recent Oscar winner, so fully and completely gives herself over to her character that you never once doubt the dramatic authenticity of any scene she occupies; she’s just so effortless at making Katniss a credible screen presence, which helps us invest in and root for her that much more.  Compared to Kristen Stewart’s aggressively sullen and mannered man-tease that was Bella in the TWILIGHT films, Lawrence’s Katniss is a strong and compelling character that’s worthy of the moniker hero.  There are not many science fiction properties that have such a sturdily defined female protagonist leading the charge, and Lawrence owns every minute of CATCHING FIRE and keeps the film successfully afloat. 

CATCHING FIRE still has some nagging issues, like the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that never really feels like it has any place in an oppressively macabre futuristic film such as this.  Thankfully, it’s a bit more muted this go-around and never takes away from the whole.  The film does run a bit too long and nearly two and a half hours, and when we finally get to the third act of the games itself – featuring CG baboons, toxic clouds, and dangerous lightning strikes - it never really sustains the interest of what occurred beforehand.  Still, I came out of CATCHING FIRE admiring it so much more than its antecedent, mostly because it journeys further into the cauldron of internal doubt and despair that Katniss finds herself in, which helps elevate the series beyond its young adult origins and into something more grimly pessimistic and frequently tragic.  It also ends - much like, again, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - on a cliffhanger, promising to put poor Katniss through the emotional ringer yet again.  

It’s fitting that the final shot of the film is a long unbroken close-up on Lawrence, who not only sells Katniss’ deep seeded fear for the future, but also her unwavering resolve and grit at the same time.  With an unendingly confident and poised Lawrence at the helm, I can’t wait to see where this franchise is headed.  Few sequels improve upon their first films as much as CATCHING FIRE does. 

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