With Francis Lawrence stepping in as director and a fresh round of richly developed secondary characters, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” averts the curse that plagues most sequels.
In many ways, “Catching Fire” is a better film than its impressive 2012 predecessor. The rough edges have been smoothed out — gone are those confusing fast edits — while the acting, directing and writing is sharper.
The only advantage the first film had over this one is that it got to introduce the audience to the Games. The sequel replays them. So while the second installment in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling dystopian trilogy may be thrilling and sets the stage for even more rebellious mischief afoot, it can’t help but seem a bit like a rehash.
That’s because Collins basically yet effectively hits the restart button and sends Katniss, the upstart co-winner of the 74th Hunger Games, into a new survival-of-the-fittest showdown, this time going mano-to-arrow against previous Games victors. These Tributes hail from the 12 districts of the post-apocalyptic Panem nation.
The future Collins has created is grim, ruled with bloody fist by a totalitarian government that orchestrates a reality-TV-like annual duel that pits teens against teens who fight to the death. Why? So the government can brainwash and inspire fear and subservience in its downtrodden minions.
Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow District 12 Tribute — the rules call for a boy and a girl to be selected by lottery from each area — were co-victors from the previous year and eventually both won by craftily pretending to be lovers. As “Catching Fire” opens, both are prepping for their Victors Tour, with Katniss saying goodbye to her best friend and minor love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who has a little more to do this time).
While on tour, Katniss and Peeta further rankle the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland, so conniving) as they go way off script and start fanning the fires of rebellion. Their behavior unwittingly puts the district population in danger.
Snow realizes he must quash Katniss so he’s tapped a new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, heavensent in the part). And since this is a sequel after all — and everything needs to be bigger and more threatening — Snow demands a more dangerous version of the game for the Quarter Quell, which marks the death match’s 75th anniversary. Plutarch delivers.
Up to that point, “Catching Fire” is refreshingly different, with director Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) and production designer Philip Messina and costume designer Trish Summerville further enhancing the look and feel of Panem. The Capitol sequences in particular add more texture and depth, mirroring the Third Reich and gladiator competitions with flourishes of Oz, that last one in the form of commentators, including the toothy TV host Stanley Tucci as Caesar.
Even when the script reboots itself and sends us back into the Games’ familiar structure, there’s more refinement and detail not just to the obstacles but the former Games winners who Collins and screenwriters Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy have created. Each Tribute comes into sharper focus, a more developed character. They’re all well cast too, particularly Jena Malone who’s outstanding as the feisty and flirty Johanna Mason and Sam Claflin as the pretty boy with a soft side Finnick.
The cast of supporting actors from the first film are a hoot again, from Woody Harrelson as the drunken but surprisingly sharp Haymitch to Elizabeth Banks as the flashy Effie.
The cast never misses a beat, including Hutcherson who gets to be more bold. But the reason “Catching Fire” works so well can once again be attributed to its strong central female character and talents of Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, the perfect actor to play her.
“Catching Fire” plays on that fact, with the camera locking on Lawrence’s face as she conveys tidal waves of conflicting emotions.
She sets the screen on fire, and so does “Catching Fire,” one of this year’s best and most thought-provoking blockbusters.
‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’
* * * ½
This post was written by Randy Myers for Digital First Media, reprinted with permission.