Closeup on Jennifer Lawrence’s face in the snow as Katniss Everdeen. Her glance communicating the burden her character bears internally without saying a word. The opening image of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is enough to set this action fantasy sequel apart. Not only from its decent first chapter, but also from all the other movies that influence or resemble it. (Especially Japan’s Battle Royale, its closest “illegitimate cousin”.)
Lawrence, star of Winter’s Bone, was a promising young actress when she was cast as the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ book series. Since then she’s grown to the point of winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for The Silver Linings Playbook. That development benefits Catching Fire and raises it to more than just a simple people-killing-people flick.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in a Nutshell
It helps that the adapted source material is pretty good to begin with. The first Hunger Games novel was the Star Wars of books about the oppressed society of Panem. Catching Fire is its Empire Strikes Back. Self-sufficient, larger in scale, darker in its narrative and marked with the possibility that maybe this time its heroes may not survive. Writers Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) and Michael deBruyn (professional pseudonym for Michael Arndt of Little Miss Sunshine fame) recognize this. They cut some corners off the plot, yet manage to preserve the essence of the story.
We begin with Katniss, archery savant and “Girl on Fire”. She survived the 74th edition of the Hunger Games, a gladiator event organized by the oppressive Capital of Panem to keep in line all the districts under its command. As a last-minute Hail Mary, she forced a tie and “won” the Games together with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow District 13 tribute and on-camera “love interest”. Their reward is enjoying the quiet life in District 12 with their families. Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’ “more than a friend”, tags along.
However, the trauma of having eliminated 22 young warriors wasn’t enough. Her ingenious solution has been interpreted as an act of rebellion by shadowy President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Many oppressed citizens from the other districts agree.
The plot examines the impact of Katniss’ actions and the new choice that she must make. She can serve as an ambassador for the Capital for the safety of her loved ones. Alternatively, she can become a symbol of revolution and liberation for the enslaved citizens of this post-apocalyptic continent.
Snow, smart and ruthless, plans to give her no choice at all. He hires Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to plan the next edition of the Games. His idea? All participants will be selected from previous winners. The list includes Katniss and Peeta. Their mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). Finnick Odair from District 4 (Sam Claflin), the youngest game champion ever. Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), tech and booby trap experts from District 3. Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), uninhibited champion from District 7. Finally, Old Mags (Lynn Cohen), a mute volunteer from District 4 who trained Finnick for his original tournament.
A Cast That’s Game
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) does an excellent job of balancing the drama and action in a film of extended length – two and a half hours long! – that manages not to be tiresome. The conflicts in Catching Fire are mostly psychological and equally as violent as its fight scenes. A first-rate cast of high-caliber actors deserves most of the praise for this.
Sutherland (An American Haunting) expertly emanates the threat that his Snow lacked in the original film. Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) takes the opportunity to develop her Effie Trinket, chaperone for the tributes from District 12. Effie goes from superficial comic relief to a human being with feelings. As Caesar Flickerman, hopeless showman and Games host, Stanley Tucci (Margin Call) entertains during the weaker scenes. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Heavensbee, who seems determined not to repeat Seneca Crane’s mistakes from the previous Games. Rocker Lenny Kravitz brings solemnity this time to his portrayal of Cinna, fashion stylist and friend to Katniss.
As Johanna, Jenna Malone seems to be recycling her character from Sucker Punch. Only this time it actually fits the film perfectly. Patrick St. Esprit (Super 8) seems to channel the evil side of Clint Eastwood in his small and powerful role as commander Romulus Thread, District 12’s new security chief. My only peeve is that Catching Fire features great actors such as Lynn Cohen (Munich) as Mags and Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Claudius Templesmith, only to give them little screen time. That, plus two or three scenes that make little sense after a certain surprise revelation during the climax (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which).
Laying Down the (J)Law
However, film hardly works without Jennifer Lawrence’s pitch-perfect performance. She’s rightfully earned the privilege of headlining this successful film franchise, as well as the X-Men series. I shall spoil nothing. Suffice it to say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ends just as it begins, with a closeup on Katniss Everdeen’s eyes. What those looks communicate says all we need to know and more about her character arc. Hence, I look forward to the next part of the saga. Details like that make this blockbuster a small wonder.
This review was first published on the Revista U website. Click here for the original article (in Spanish).
Movie title: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Movie description: The second chapter in the saga based on Suzanne Collins' books is bigger and better than the original in every way.
Date published: 2013-11-28
Director(s): Francis Lawrence
Actor(s): Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Amanda Plummer, Stanley Tucci
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction