The 2012 film “The Hunger Games” launched a new movie franchise to the tune of almost $700 million at the box office. It was based on Suzanne Collins’ equally popular book series – one that I had never heard of prior to the film’s announcement. The story is dystopian science fiction and it examines themes such a class disparity, oppression, and the infatuation with reality television. It wasn’t a perfect movie but it stood head and shoulders above other popular film franchises aimed at this age group. With a good cast locked in and the groundwork laid for a fairly interesting premise, the inevitable sequel had a lot of potential and expectations.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” hit theaters with even bigger fanfare than the first film. It raked in over $860 million and received hearty praise from critics. Personally I felt there was room to improve from the first film, but I didn’t expect to find a significantly better movie. I really enjoyed “Catching Fire” and I was impressed at how many trappings it avoided. So often movies of this type and sequels in general make the same mistakes which more often than not lowers the quality of the film. “Catching Fire” does several things better this time around and it starts with the story.
This film begins shortly after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The two have returned to District 12 where Katniss has convinced her local boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that her “love” for Peeta was just an act to survive the games. She is paid a surprise visit by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who informs her that she and Peeta will be going on a victors tour to the other districts. He also expresses displeasure in her defiant actions during the games which have fueled a rising underground rebellion against his Capitol. He intends to use the tour to influence public opinion but in secret he feels the only way to solve his problem is to kill Katniss.
Woody Harrelson returns as the goodhearted boozer Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks is back as Effie, the queen of gaudy fashion overkill. The two clearly have affections for Katniss and Peeta and they both understand the danger and intensity of their situation. They try to prepare the two victors for the tightrope they must walk between energizing the revolution and bringing the wrath of President Snow to their home district. Director Francis Lawrence does a great job of ratcheting up the tension during this part of the story and the stakes are raised particularly when some of the tour stops to oppressed districts don’t go as planned.
The story then takes a sharp turn with the out-of-the-blue announcement of the Third Quarter Quell. Basically ever 25 years the Hunger Games are “celebrated” with a special set of rules that normally serves the Capitol’s interests. President Snow decides that the 75th games will consist only of past winners. Since Katniss is the only female to win from District 12 she is automatically put into the games which Snow hopes will take care of his little problem. For me this is where the movie does spin its wheels a little. In what felt like a slight retread from the first film, we go back through the glitzy chariot presentations of the players, their appearances on Stanley Tucci’s whacky talk show, and the showcase of their skills before the bigwigs. It doesn’t play out as long as it did in the first film but I did find myself anxious for things to movie along.
But once the games do start the film gets right back on track. There are a number of interesting twists and angles that come from a variety of different directions. That is what provides the film with its own identity. “Catching Fire” maintains the grand scope and ominous threat of the first film, but it magnifies it and then takes it into its own place. A lot of it has to do with the progression of Collins’ story, but I give a lot of credit to Francis Lawrence’s direction and the screenplay from Simon Beaufoy and Michael duBruyn.
It also helps that the acting takes a step up. Lawrence is fabulous and I would take this performance over her good but generic work in “American Hustle”. She is the heart and soul of the film and her abilities to sell her character both emotionally and physically are vital. I also think Josh Hutcherson make significant strides. His acting was a weakness in the first film but both he and Liam Hemsworth make obvious improvements. It was also great seeing some new characters played by really talented actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in what is one of his final roles) shows up as Snow’s new Gamemaker. I also really liked Jeffrey Wright as a studious fellow games participant.
I enjoyed the first film of this popular franchise even though I didn’t think it was great. That alone was enough to make me curious about “Catching Fire”. What I didn’t expect was to be completely enthralled in it from start to finish. “Catching Fire” is a big budget franchise entry that manages itself well and pulls off what many are incapable of doing. It not only adds to the groundwork laid by its predecessor, but it improves on it in nearly every area. And perhaps this movie’s biggest trick was to make ME thoroughly interested in what happens next. That of itself was a major accomplishment.