The Hunger Games: Catching Fire thrills and captivates due to the improvements over its predecessor, providing stronger character development, a thematically rich storyline, and a set-up for a two-part finale that should prove this series as more than just traditional blockbuster fodder. Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire, who won the 74th Hunger Games with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). In the eyes of the public they are a loving couple who will spend the rest of their lives together; in their private lives, they are cold and distanced from one another, with Katniss’s affection directed at Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the miner she loves in her home, District 12. As the newly established couple prepare for their Victory Tour that ultimately leads to the Capitol, there’s a storm brewing in every visit. Katniss has instilled hope in many of the lesser districts, providing them with the belief that they can rise above the ranks of the wealthy and establish their own lives. There’s a revolution coming.
That’s the undercurrent of the second film, which helps it resonate effectively. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is even more powerful and cold this time around, dictating the lives of the previous survivors of the games and ensuring that the oppressed remain in that state. After all, as we are reminded, the games were created to ensure that another rebellion did not occur, and to serve as a reminder of those who died during the rebellions. He hopes to continue the power divide that has existed for so long, and he cracks an ingenious concept for the 75th Hunger Games (or, The Quarter Quell) with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman): have the new tributes be picked from previous winners. Not only does this ensure that Katniss will be picked, but it will allow for her to die not as a martyr, but as a lost sign of hope for the slow uprising that is happening in all of the districts.
Panem is a dark world, which Francis Lawrence has appropriately established as director. He’s a notable improvement over Gary Ross’s direction in the first film, which opted for shaky-cam, personal looks at the world that became slightly disorienting by the film’s conclusion; while Lawrence does not have a visual staple here, his sensitive, distanced direction works around the film’s hidden brutality. There are far more traps that emerge from the games this time around: a poison fog, jabberjays (which record the sounds of loved ones), a killer tidal wave, and a bunch of other surprises that kill the participants in unexpected ways. This is a decidedly darker film in terms of the amount of deaths; a man shot in the head in one of the film’s opening moments sets the tone for what is fittingly becoming a disjointed, embattled futuristic landscape. It’s as if the second time around has allowed for the filmmakers to embrace the inherent thrill that can be gained from a dystopic universe.
The film isn’t without flaw, though. The central love triangle does not feel authentic so much as manipulated to form conflict for the film. It feels cold on Katniss’s behalf, considering she moves from one guy to another without a true grasp of the emotions that link her to these men; the problem remains that Peeta and Gale both remain viable options for her, which makes the situation all the more uncomfortable as a viewer. The supporting cast outside of that is fantastic: Stanley Tucci is once again delightfully absurd and manic as Caesar Flickerman; Elizabeth Banks turns remarkably sweet and touching as Effie Trinket; Philip Seymour Hoffman is a joy in his very limited screen time; and Woody Harrelson has a blast being the alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy. Lawrence is terrific in the lead, as expected, and she gives Katniss a more layered approach, outside of the aforementioned love storyline. Even if the ending is decidedly open-ended, it builds excitement for the next film more than most sequels do nowadays. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire remains exciting, thought-provoking popcorn entertainment.
Grade ★★★★ (out of 5)
Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s site on Friday.