The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second film in the Hunger Games series. It seamlessly picks up where the first film left off, and adds a twist that, well, changes the game.
The original film leaves us with District 12 residents Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) having won the 74th annual Hunger Games, a tactical warlike series of survival games in which only a single victor is rewarded with his or her life. Due to their loyal teamwork and the false public perception that they have fallen in love, the pair commands the endearment of the population and are recognized as the first ever co-victors in the history of the games. Their victory, aided in part by their trickery of the system, also becomes a symbol of rebellion in the districts of Panem, unifying commoners in the nation’s districts who were long divided due to the winner-take-all nature of the games in which the victor’s district was rewarded with prestige, provision and relative prosperity.
Catching Fire brings us to the 75th anniversary of the competition, in which the corrupt governing body sparks an uproar by drastically changing the rules of selection. Historically, prior victors were granted perpetual immunity from future selection, but President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enacts an amendment to squash the rebellion by forming the pool of nominees solely from previous winners of the brutal battle to the death. The move, designed to tighten the government’s grip on society and keep the districts divided, has the opposite effect, unifying not only common citizens, but competitors as well. This will prove to have a profound effect on the outcome of the games. Who will survive? Can unity and loyalty prevail over tyranny? The film’s tag line, “Remember Who the Enemy Is”, gives us a clue.
Comparing Catching Fire to its predecessor would be like comparing consecutive chapters of a book, and an unfinished one at that. For that reason, I’ll spare you the “which one is better” analysis and simply tell you that Catching Fire is a remarkable visual masterpiece of fantasy and fiction. Lawrence is amazing as Katniss, taking viewers on an emotional journey through the heroine’s conflicted existence without eliciting sappy sympathy. She is much too strong and resilient for anyone to feel sorry for her, despite facing seemingly the most unfair circumstances imaginable. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen is truly the anchor of this film and the series. She is the people’s champion, and she most deservedly garners loyalty from all corners, as well as from the audience.
Hutcherson is also brilliant in the reprisal of his role as Peeta, once again effectively coming across as dead weight at times, but this time around evolving and maturing emotionally as well as tactically as an unwilling warrior in a fight for his life. He definitely comes away with the Most Improved Player award, but you still find yourself wanting to yell at the screen and tell him to die already because he’s holding up the damn show. Still, he definitely proves his worth, even if at times, by design, he doesn’t carry his weight. He steps up to the plate as a real competitor in the battle for the affections of the lovely Katniss, successfully emerging from the shadows of her “real” beau Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), completely unlike the poor sucker he seemed to be in the first installment; in fact, he all but renders Hawthorne an afterthought this time around, replacing ruse with striking reality, and charming Katniss out of her socks with both his bravery and his selfless humanity. Kudos Josh for stepping up your mack game, bro. Now if only we could keep you from getting your ass knocked out and almost killed all the damn time. It’s nerve wracking. But then again, I guess that’s the point.
Woody Harrelson is magnificent as prior Hunger Games victor turned District 12 team advisor Haymitch Abernathy. He displays exponentially more depth and dimension than in the first installment, in which he at times seemed to be merely a drunken caricature inserted for mild comic relief. This time around he still brings essential levity, but he also emerges as a true caring mentor and multidimensional ally to the District 12 team.
Donald Sutherland is highly believable as the dictatorial, sinister President Snow; we hate him even more this time around, as we should. Kudos are also in order for Stanley Tucci for his intentionally over-the-top turn as Caesar Flickerman, outdoing his outlandish antics from the first go-round with an added sense of commitment to his role as the consummate company man, loyal to the evil government with a ready smile at all times. Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year Old Virgin) was so spot-on as the surreal, gold obsessed Effie Trinket that I didn’t even realize until after the fact that she was Elizabeth Banks. Veteran screen actor Geoffrey Wright is a welcome addition to the cast as Beetee, a cerebral, tactical Games competitor who becomes an invaluable ally in the fight for survival. Philip Seymour Hoffman expertly adds an interesting tactical wrinkle to the story as head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee.
Catching Fire indeed catches fire, and is a great way to spend a night at the movies. I’m already on the edge of my seat in anticipation of part three.
Brian C. Scott