The Hunger Games was a fun movie that had more going on thematically than you usually get from Hollywood spectacles ostensibly aimed at a YA audience. Plus, to quote my Flyer review, “the baseline lesson of The Hunger Games is don't trust whitey, and I think that's a good one to teach kids.”
The sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is thankfully cut from the same cloth. It starts a few months after the last ended. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is back home in Panem's District 12 (American Appalachia). She still illegally hunts game, but her family is better off than they were at the beginning of the Hunger Games cycle. Now they all live, along with Katniss' boy toy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), in mansions in Victor's Village, part of their prize for having won the Hunger Games. Katniss' pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth) works in the coal mines, and they still have a chaste, platonic-plus relationship.
Katniss suffers from PTSD, which is intensified when she and Peeta are forced to go on a victory tour of Panem, including District 11 (the South), which we last saw in riot after the tragic death of their tribute, Rue. In Catching Fire, District 11 is illustrated with cotton fields and impoverished faces. The crowd demonstrates its appreciation for Katniss, but the Capitol stormtroopers see it as political defiance and murderously respond. It's a horrifying, effective scene.
Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — lord, these names — takes over as the head gamesmaker who wants to make the event mean something. Every 25 years, the Capitol throws a curve ball to remind the districts that they are subjugated. The dastardly twist in this year's Hunger Games: It pits previous victors against each other, a sudden-death all-star game. So back into the fray goes Katniss, like a premise too profitable to quit.
Catching Fire is on surest ground when the games begin, contextualizing the entertainment value of the battle scenes for the real audience better than the first film did; you don't really want any of these gladiators to die. Lawrence, Hutcherson, and Harrelson are all very good. Jena Malone and Sam Claflin stand out in smaller roles. And Stanley Tucci returns as the scenery-chewing showman Caesar, filling a role that might’ve otherwise gone to Robin Williams, for which I am thankful.
Director Francis Lawrence capably administers the film. The districts have a tactile griminess and despair, and the Capitol is portrayed as a neon techno-Rome, equally shrewd and vapid.
Catching Fire is a significant upgrade over the book. The script by a couple Oscar winners, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, does a better job balancing Katniss' vulnerability and strength — the book settles on passive — and finds a satisfying gait for the fastidious romantic three-legged race. Here's hoping the third film is a tactical victory over its own disappointing source material.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Opens Friday, November 22nd