Last year’s film adaptation of Suzanne Collins‘ young adult favourite The Hunger Games gets a starkly improved follow-up in Catching Fire, a much anticipated and seemingly much darker sequel. It was with genuinely high hopes that I went to see it with some friends at Heron City this past weekend and I’m not especially disappointed with what was put before me.
Catching Fire returns us to Panem, a futuristic America where the rich lead privileged lives in the realm of “The Capitol”, whilst the less fortunate ones are divided into districts surrounding it, District 1 being the best ones off and District 12 being the pretty much worst. But a national hero resides out there in the form of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who emerged victorious from last year’s Hunger Games – the annual deathmatch where pairs from each district slaughter each other in a hazardous arena – after boldly defying the system and threatening to kill both herself and fellow tribute Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) if the two weren’t allowed to win as a pair. This one action has caused the other districts to make her their symbol of hope and rebellion, and those who domineer the pecking order start to develop very real fears that revolution is at hand.
The solicitous President Snow (Donald Sutherland) doesn’t like this and at first forces Katniss to act for the cameras, seeing as her and Peeta are celebrities by now, and claim that they only wanted to get out together because they were in love and that that was their sole motivation and nothing else, even if they must fake a marriage. Or something. I dunno, it’s just an addition to the flames of that love triangle between them and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which, let’s face it, interests no one but the Twilight fans. Either way, this all changes when Snow has a talk with the new gamemaker for the Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who suggests a way of removing Katniss once and for all and thus wither the hope of the rebels: putting her back in the Hunger Games and have her face the winners of previous years!
Since the only winners from District 12 are Katniss, Peeta and their drunkard mentor from last year, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss has no choice but to go as the female tribute. She was initially going alongside Haymitch (which, honestly I’d have rather seen) but Peeta volunteers to go in his place. We then get some of the same preperation routines we saw in the first film. The hideously fabulous Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) once again oversees the progress and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is in charge of their ceremonial fashion, but there’s a much darker tone to all these people this time around and it doesn’t help that Cinna does something to only further enrage Snow and express his support of the rebellion. The only one who’s still pretty upbeat is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the man who hosts the televised broadcast of the games and interviews the tributes, but he’s not in the film so much.
And soon enough the games indeed begin and suspenseful action ensues – without the usage migrane-inducing cinematography this time, amazingly enough.
The returning winners whom Katniss face include smarmy charmeur Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), his elderly mentor and mother figure Mags (Lynn Cohen), a snarky young lady named Johanna (Jena Malone), hyperintelligent problem-solver Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright) and his equally clever partner Wiress (Amanda Plummer). The remaining supporting cast includes Willow Shields and Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ dear mother and sister respectively, and Toby Jones as Flickerman’s somehow even more ridiculous-looking co-host. But then, most scenes set in The Capitol seem like a contest of who wears the most colorfully garish outfit.
Although an inarguable step-up from the last Hunger Games picture, there were aspects of Catching Fire which left me baffled, especially so when we get to the end and a major plot twist reveals the true nature of this year’s game, those behind it and even those within. Honestly, though, this point of the story felt not only like it was probably explained a bit better in the book (I assume, having not read it), but it’s also one of those “reveals” that unfortunately make less sense the more you think about them and realize how improbably convenient everything leading up to it was.
A good twist is a twist that, even though you do not expect it to happen, it makes you go “Oh of course” when it does happen. The one in this particular film is a twist that makes you question the prior actions of one of the involved characters as they seem inconsistent with what we’ve just learned. As with Now You See Me, however, this little error doesn’t carry tremendous weight as it doesn’t make me think less of what is otherwise a very good film! Sure, the ending is somewhat abrupt even as a cliffhanger, even if it got me more hooked for the next sequel than I can describe, and sometimes the abundance of screaming and grunting gets old, but oh my word how much more enjoyable it is than that which came before it!
One improvement is the characters. Not only did I care much more about Peeta and especially poor, poor Katniss in Catching Fire than in last year’s film, but Effie was more compelling in her shrinking ability to keep her fake smile up for the cameras during such horrid times, Lenny Kravitz was much more memorable in his role, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes for an infinitely more interesting gamemaker than Wes Bentley‘s Seneca Crane, and do you remember how I wished in my review of the first movie that Donald Sutherland would receive a larger role as a villain? Because I got that too! I also enjoyed Woody Harrelson’s character but let’s be honest, that man is completely terrific no matter what movie he’s in. The only sore thumb is some of the more bland tributes inside the Game but you can’t win ’em all.
Add to all that some great-looking imagery, a James Newton Howard soundtrack, delightfully bizarre costume designs, decently delivered comedy and genuinely heart-wrenching dramatic moments and you’ve got yourself a 4/5! Go see this film; you’ll enjoy it even if you’re not a fan of the novel, I’m sure. Hell, my dad’s friend Mike Dorkman Scott of the Down in Front film podcast even called it an improvement! Perhaps ’tis so.
I overall enjoyed the film and am looking forward to the conclusion in the upcoming Mockingjay two-parter. I might just bear a mockingjay brosche of my own in the theatre to show my support of Katniss’ victory. *whistles dramatically*