"Remember who the enemy is."
It's hard not to argue just how more confidently made and executed The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is than its predecessor in most every conceivable way. Journeyman blockbuster director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) takes over from original helmer Gary Ross and brings a stark visual and adventurous momentum to the Suzanne Collins' authored young adult series. The sequel succeeds in raising the stakes of the characters and maintains a remarkably fluid cinematic story by expanding its ideas and themes.
Jennifer Lawrence returns as the venerable and perpetually conflicted girl on fire, Katniss Everdeen. She makes the most of a difficult role. Her point of view narrative and relatively straightforward arc has been replaced with a multi-sided balancing act of mixed emotions and constant terror. It's hard to imagine anyone being able to be so identifiable and intriguing at the centre of so much dystopian political and emotional drama. No longer is she just focused on survival. She becomes a reluctant hero and figure with the hope of the world behind her. The way screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Ardnt weave the typical yet dramatic love triangle more casually into the larger narrative is rather smooth despite some less than thrilling, bland chemistry between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Catching Fire is very much two films. The first half is essentially an epilogue of the aftermath of the original film dealing with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss' trickery in winning the games. They deal with all the social instability around them while faking their televised romance. The latter half is a fairly thrilling reinterpretation of the titular Hunger Games competition (filmed in glorious IMAX). It mimics the original's structure in order to slowly reveal its more elaborate working parts laying groundwork for the political uprising beyond the concept of the games.
The children and teens of the original The Hunger Games are replaced here with veterans, or "victors", all winners from past games to celebrate the 75th anniversary and third Quarter Quell. Where the first film's strangely tame PG-13 violence masked the insidious and darkly disturbing nature of pitting children and teens against each other in an elimination game of murderous survivor, the violence between grown adults is much more digestible and entertaining. However, the film takes full advantage of its middle status to explore dark themes in the vein of The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight without needing a more palpable conclusion.
Several cast additions bring some intriguing new character dynamics. Sam Claflin as Finnick is the most consquential addition as the typical cocky hero with unknown motives. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Jena Malone all make for interesting and mysterious foes or friends alike while regulars Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and Elizabeth Banks continue to charm and up the dark comedy. These players make the actual games portion of the film much more dynamic and compelling with its drama coming from character interactions and not neutered violence, going beyond the Battle Royale meets The Lottery concept.
What drags the film down is the mechanics of the relationships and all the lies everyone tells each other set against the twelve districts and their surging rebellion. We're reminded how Katniss faked her love for Peta in order to play the game and survive yet she clearly has complicated feelings for him despite her love for Gale back home. This is further complicated by the mysterious alliances formed on the island as the games start. Characters act on multiple levels for the cameras and each other to appease the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and keep appearances yet must act like they're trying their best which is clearly not good enough. It's rather complicated and hard to keep track as obviously everyone has feelings for one another but at unknown capacities.
Lawrence brings sharp action and direction into the relationship dynamics mirroring internal struggles with external threats fairly adeptly. The world building and visual construction of the dystopic districts and opulent Capitol City far out leap the first film as we feel the more lived in world. The most unsatisfying part is how it leads directly into next year's two-part Mockingjay films without a sustained, standalone ending of its own. Catching Fire successfully masks itself as a retelling of the original film while becoming a much more subversive experience structurally. It's a more enjoyable and complex adventure far more grounded yet fatalistic in tone.
"In all ways except originality, Catching Fire is a superior sequel." – The AV Club
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