As someone who was genuinely surprised at how much he enjoyed the first Hunger Games film, I had pretty high expectations for the follow-up entry in Suzanne Collins famous Hunger Games Trilogy, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Amazingly the film doesn’t just meet those expectations, it does laps around them.
Following the events of the first film, the winners of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), return home to District 12. Only it’s not the same for them anymore. It can’t be. They now live in a neighborhood that’s designated for the games’ previous winners, such as their coach and mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). They are forced to tour the country designed as a victory tour, which is really just designed as a way for President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to use them publicly in order to try and prevent the country from erupting or uprising ever again.
Immediately, you’ll notice the work of new director Francis Lawrence, who replaces the first film’s director, Gary Ross. Lawrence is adept for capturing the gloomy and hopeless feel of this world. He along with the film’s screenwriters Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, are able to take the elements that made the first film good, while ironing out its flaws, making a sequel that is great.
It helps that we see our heroes thrown into games where the stakes are raised that much higher. While seeking a solution to bring down both Katniss and the hope of the people who are starting to rally behind her, President Snow works alongside new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to find a solution. They sneakily make it so that the 75th edition of the games will be a Quarter Quell, where a new rule is added to that years edition of the game. This time, contestants will be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Snow and Heavensbee figure this will take down Katniss under the right circumstances, while also crushing the hope of the nation for good.
Since Katniss and Peeta were the only winners ever from District 12 along with Haymitch (whose name is drawn but Peeta volunteers), they’re forced to return to the games which they just narrowly escaped in the last film. Only this time they are up against previous winners, some who will clearly be problematic for them, as they are skilled in their own ways and just as worthy as our two heroes. This isn’t the only conflict for Katniss and Peeta, who are forced to publicly fake their romance in order to please Snow, who knows that there’s also a romance between Katniss and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). The absurdity and pure evilness of Snow is an effective one to align us against him, as we all are opposed to the idea of an oppressive government or tyrant.
Since everyone is so talented, Katniss and Peeta are forced to make friends with some of them to try and survive as long as they possibly can. You’re not sure of any of the players motivations, which includes the strange and mysterious new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee. The games themselves are more intense then before, with much more natural elements of the stadium working against the contestants than ever before. There are lightning strikes, ferocious mandrills, and dangerous fog. If your fellow contestants don’t kill you, the elements will.
What makes this round of the games so interesting is that the motivations of all the contestants are quite curious and interesting. They need to become allies and work together with one another if they want to maintain any chance of survival. These contestants include the curiously friendly Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) who was the youngest contestant to ever win the games, at only 14-years-old. He’s accompanied by Mags (Lynn Cohen), an elderly woman who volunteers in place of Finnick’s wife. Then there’s the strangely sexy but also intimidating Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) as well as the dangerously smart husband and wife duo of Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer).
Catching Fire isn’t better than its predecessor just becomes the games are more intense this time around. It works better because even more is at stake. The survival of Katniss and Peeta’s in the prior games created hope for a nation under unbelievably horrible rule. This hope is entering the early stages of a possible revolution. But ironically Snow’s usage of them on the victory tour actually puts them more in the shoes of the wealthy, and strays them further from the people they want to represent, and fight alongside against Snow with. The fighters themselves in the game this time also question their role in all this madness, wondering if its each other they should be fighting, or the evil empire that brought them back again. Especially when they were supposedly promised that they’d never have to fight again after winning their games. Who is the real enemy here? This is a question that all the contestants have to ask themselves.
All around, the whole cast of Catching Fire stepped up their game to create a daring ensemble that works on every level. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson deliver the same emotional, and physical, performances as the first, but dive deeper into the emotional territory with a more welcomed role for Liam Hemsworth’s Gale to bring the love triangle even further along.
While the leads are solid, the film works wonders with the supporting cast. It surprised me how crucial the supporting cast played into the games this time around. The focus isn’t just on Katniss and Peeta. Sam Claflin was great as Finnick Odair, easily the most intriguing new character involved in the games this time around. There’s also great work from Jena Malone as Johanna Mason and Jeffrey Wright as Beetee.Of course, we can’t forget the great Philip Seymour Hoffman who adds a whole new level to the film with his mysterious Plutarch Heavensbee. Old favorites Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) all have their roles elevated from the first film, and it’s more than welcomed.
Catching Fire ends in an abrupt Empire Strikes Back fashion, leading us right into the third and final book, Mockingjay, which will be split up into two films, that will be released in 2014 & 2015, respectfully. I have high hopes for them, after how rock solid Catching Fire ended up being. I don’t know how fans of the novel feel about it, but from the perspective of someone who is only familiar with the films, Catching Fire is a smashing success. (Imax is the way too go by the way)