It’s still amazing what a difference a year can make. When The Hunger Games opened in 2012, it was viewed with industry skepticism due to its emphasis on child violence and worse, a female action heroine. Yet, after that box office Cinderella story, all eyes this autumn have been arrested by The Girl On Fire.
And I’m here to say The Hunger Games: Catching Fire delivers. Not only is it going to be the biggest movie of the holiday season, it’s also easily the best blockbuster of the year. After months of warmed over superhero happy meals, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire offers a truly satisfying experience that leaves you desperate for more of this world, and also for the characters who inhabit it. This especially applies to the film’s core, a girl and her bow.
It’s been a rough year since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) won the previous Hunger Games. Despite being the victors, they learn what their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) means when he says that there are no winners, only survivors. In the dead of icy winter, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pays a visit to Katniss and her starving people in District 12. As poster-children for the Panem government now, Katniss and Peeta are forced to go from district to district proclaiming their love for one another, lest anybody suspect that their refusal to fight to the death in the previous movie was an act of defiance. And if Katniss fails to convince Snow or his citizenry that these are the romantic dreams that reality TV is made of, there will be consequences.
The film is intentionally divided into two sections. The first is almost a comedy of manners as Katniss and Peeta are paraded around Panem, most memorably in the Capitol, to a public alternating between admiration and revolution. In the Capitol, Katniss is viewed as the visage of love, but in the outer-edges of the dystopia, she is synonymous with the Mockingjay, whose buzzing sound has become the whisper of rebellion. This reaches all the way back home where Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and even Katniss’ younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) are singing the songs of angry men.
The second half of the film becomes Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) solution to this Katniss problem: An All-Star 75th Hunger Games filled with previous years’ winners. Of course, this includes Katniss and Peeta. With all the political drama, one can almost forget there is still the love triangle where Gale and Peeta vie for Katniss’ deeply buried feelings.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a big movie. Indeed, it is almost alien to the style of Gary Ross’ original film. Whereas that movie relied on excessive shaky-cam and tight close-ups, series newcomer Francis Lawrence directs the sequel with an actual blockbuster budget on an operatic scale. In the building festivities to the 75th Hunger Games, there are times where the Capitol is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s version of Rome. This is obviously intentional and it works to marvelous effect.
There is unfortunately something lost in the verisimilitude of last year’s movie, which had an economical immediacy by placing much of the importance of this sci-fi world on the lived-in hardships of its characters. However, the trade-off should please many of the fans previously upset that the actual Hunger Games violence was too chaotic and spastic to comprehend. Director Lawrence not only pulls the camera back for the 75th quarter quells, he captures the exasperating carnage in staggering IMAX. If you have the ability to see this on an IMAX screen in 70mm, do it. While it is presented entirely in 35mm for well over an hour, once the actual Games start, the movie literally opens up into stunning IMAX clarity. As someone who still fails to see the novelty of 3D, it is always refreshing when certain filmmakers unleash their quills with IMAX blockbusters that embrace film over gimmicks.
Yet ultimately, visual style is secondary to character and emotion, which almost goes without saying is the highlight of The Hunger Games films thanks primarily to Jennifer Lawrence. Indeed, the world of Panem is so dark and absurdly twisted that it might almost be hard to believe that this exact form of tyranny could exist, if not for Lawrence’s ever-anchoring performance. Yet, in Catching Fire, Katniss is in a different place. Last year was entirely about survival, first for her sister and then for herself. This year, things are truly catching fire in more ways than one. Obviously, the murmurs of revolution and war are spreading like rising fumes in the air, but the title should also apply to its heroine: This time, Katniss is pissed.
It turns out a year of smiling for the cameras about being in love with a boy that she is as frosty to as the Appalachian Mountains has not been good for her Zen. The longer Snow tries to make her his puppet, the more evident the flames are emanating from around Lawrence’s eyes. That’s not a special effect, it’s pure fury, which becomes quite unbridled when she is forced back into the Hunger Games for a celebratory quarter quell. If the best scenes last year were her accepting seeming oblivion in the Reaping and later Rue’s death (both called back here), then this time it is about how anger has replaced her fear. All the tributes who are forced back into the death arena have amusing, if all too fleeting, reactions to this new twist of fate, but none are as unsettlingly inflammatory as Katniss’ dead-eyed stare for the Capitol’s president.
The supporting players are not given nearly as much to project, though Hutcherson continues to prove sympathetic and amiable as the boy next door who Katniss keeps at arrow’s length. However, it’s increasingly confusing as to why she does so. Gale may have his admirers from Suzanne Collins’ books, but onscreen Hemsworth is again given short shrift as the third point of the triangle. In fact, his role is so miniscule that it has become somewhat mystifying why Katniss seems drawn to the childhood friend at all when the only character with whom she can share any meaningful conversation, besides the always scene-stealing Harrelson, is that boy who she pretends is her fiancée.
The new tributes fare slightly better, as at least a few are given time to shine. There’s Finnick (Sam Claflin), a cocky and grinning foe that proves to be more important to Katniss’ survival than he would initially seem. As a fan favorite from the book, he immediately asserts himself for viewers well above Peeta and certainly Gale. Also, given a few scenes to chew is Jena Malone as Johanna, a bitter firecracker of a returning tribute who in reality TV language would be the “heel.” She announces herself as a livewire presence from her very first scene, and would have also been gladly greeted with more screentime. Lastly, there’s Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, a great actor wasted in a small part as the egghead tribute. The rest of the fighters essentially stand around with target practice signs above their head for only the diehard book fans to recognize.
Returning players Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, and a deliciously evil Stanley Tucci are all uniformly excellent in their briskly passing roles. While the first film gave them all enough breathing room to standout, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has expanded robustly to the point where even at 146 minutes, there is nary a moment to stop and linger with any of these familiar presences. Indeed, this problem is most noticeable during the movie’s climax, which suffers heavily from “middle movie syndrome.” As the second installment of a trilogy of books (and a tetralogy of films), the story does not so much conclude as abruptly stop dead in its tracks. If you have not read the books, then you likely will not even know you’re witnessing the climax until five minutes away from the end credits. The result is a bit awkward and somewhat of a comedown from how well the rest of the picture works, but it feels almost inevitable in this kind of storytelling where only George Lucas and Irvin Kershner have ever gotten away with a completely satisfying cliffhanger.
A few last-minute stumbles aside, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire works extremely well. This is a movie entirely crafted for the fans, but that includes movie ones just as much as Collins’ loyal readers. After a year of unending blockbuster disappointments, everyone from the two Lawrences down deliver a cathartic entertainment actually about something. It should enrapture Katniss’ younger fans and also impress viewers of any age with its sheer scope and emotional integrity. Things may be getting darker for Katniss, but her movies are winning.
Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars