It’s rare occasion these days in cinema where a sequel film is more ambitious and edgier than its predecessor, especially when the films are adapted from a spectacularly popular book series. However, that’s just what is accomplished in this weekend’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
There’s a moment of dialogue when the movie begins where the film’s President Snow (a much edgier Donald Sutherland) tells Katniss, “You fought very hard in the games, Ms. Everdeen. But they were games.” It’s an apt description of Snow’s intentions for Everdeen and all 12 Districts that make up Panem, but it’s an even better description for director Francis Lawrence’s sequel. You see, Catching Fire not only tells us what’s in-store but it delivers on an emotional level as well as a physical. It’s the sequel we were all hoping for and, frankly, it’s the sequel we deserve.
The film opens up with our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting in the woods with her on-again-off-again flavor of the week, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Katniss is about to embark on her weeks-long Victory Tour with for-show boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson – underrated here). It’s in this moment that we learn that ‘Katnip’ and Gale have expounded on their relationship and are more than “just friends”. President Snow knows about Katniss’ love for Gale and her “TV love” for Peeta, but uprisings in some of the Districts have Snow a bit worried about the image Katniss is projecting to the masses. Therefore he instructs Katniss to make her and Peeta’s love more believable. This only leads to more uprisings and eventual 75th Hunger Games or “Quarter Quell” casts a male and female past victor from each District against each other. Naturally Katniss and Peeta are once again teamed up together to try to stay alive. However, this time around there are plans bigger than Katniss and they’ll take her to places she never thought she’d go.
Catching Fire is everything The Hunger Games wasn’t. With nearly double the production budget of the original film, Catching Fire is wonderfully acted and meticulously scripted to piece together the story without things becoming redundant. It’s hard to tell a different story while much of the film is the same as the original. Really, how interesting is it watching the same characters battle it out for a second time in nearly identical fashion? Well, we don’t have to worry about that because Francis Lawrence takes Suzanne Collins beautifully crafted characters and adds layers to them. Where the original Hunger Games failed, Catching Fire more than makes up for. First film director Gary Ross, while building these characters, never really told their story. He more-or-less presented them as is and let the actors do all the work. While that’s fine, these characters deserved better. With Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) they got it. The actors are more involved, the settings are more unique, the camerawork is tons better, and perhaps most of all the violence feels more immediate. These characters are more dangerous but they’re in more danger as the film progresses.
The violence, while contained to the arena in the first film, is more than present outside of the arena in this sequel. From the beginning we see Katniss hallucinate that she’s killed someone while hunting, then during their Victory Tour we see an act of defiance met with execution, point blank. It’s shocking really, because it’s such a sharp contrast to what was present in the original film.
As the film progresses we are slowly introduced to new characters; whether they’re new opponents in the arena or potential opponents in the Capitol. However, each of these characters brings something meaty to the film – especially Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) who first appears as a rival but eventually allies with Katniss and Peeta. He’s essential to their survival in the arena but there’s also more to the character than what is let on. Odair has a significant other back in his original District that he’s fighting for and you can see it in his eyes every time he looks at Katniss and Peeta. The other main newcomer to the film is Phillip Seymour-Hoffman who plays new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Hoffman plays the role with such ease that at first glance it may look as if he’s coasting in a lesser role, however that’s anything but the case in Catching Fire. Hoffman is such a gifted actor that he tones down the role and lets his demeanor do the heavy work. While the first film’s Gamemaker – Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) – was more of a do-boy for President Snow, as Heavensbee is more on Snow’s level and isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the President and it shows through Hoffman’s performance.
The film runs a tad long weighing in at about two and a half hours but it’s so wonderfully paced you don’t even notice. Catching Fire is a rare sequel that works better than the original but doesn’t cast disparages on it either. Don’t be surprised when, at the end of the film, you’re left can’t believing you’re going to have to wait another year for the next film.