The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ★★★★

Because I never wrote a The Hunger Games review (and don’t plan to unless I re-watch it, which probably won’t happen), I figure some of these thoughts are valid for this second instalment to explain my feelings about this movie and the series as a whole.

I read The Hunger Games when it first came to the e-book marketplace, eagerly recommended to me by my loveable Kindle immediately upon finishing a dystopian science fiction book which I had quite enjoyed. Collins’ series hadn’t yet exploded popularly (at least not here in Canada), and with a Battle Royale-esque plot summary along being somehow linked to another novel I quite enjoyed, I figured that without anything better to read, it would be worth giving a shot - I really had no idea what to expect.

As I read it, I was confused. This was clearly a book targeting teen audiences, but the dark undertones and core dystopian survivalist themes resonated with me. There was enough there to engage with and keep me reading, and overlook all of the teen angst and whiny inner turmoil. A lot of that had to do with what happens in this second instalment, and how it affects the characters within it. This chapter finally begins to get to the roots of unrest on a large scale, and demonstrate what the real stakes are - and it doesn’t pull any punches in doing that.

Catching Fire, as a movie, is superior to the first film in almost every way because it is actually able to harness and amplify all that makes this series interesting and compelling. The characters in this film, unlike the first, are nuanced, the stakes are clear, and the impact of their decisions have gravity. We get a palpable sense of the countless directions Katniss is pulled in, and the difficulties she has with making even the smallest decisions, all because the consequences are laid bare.

The film begins slowly before suddenly - in one single scene - launching itself forward in both energy and scope. And the tension and energy brought about within that one scene stay with the film as it moves briskly to its crescendo. Gary Ross, director of the first instalment and films such as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, was a terrible choice to helm this franchise from the get-go, and it’s a relief to see him gone. Francis Lawrence, comparatively, does an incredible job with the material, and demonstrates an understanding of what motivates and grounds its characters. The one thing Gary Ross got right technically - a grittiness to his camera work - is largely absent in this film which feels cleaner and more visually polished. That’s probably a symptom of the much larger budget as much as it is Lawrence’s methods as a filmmaker, but as the movie speeds along and the action sequences amplify in energy, this is a technical consideration that feels entirely subjective and mostly moot.

Catching Fire avoids a hard-R rating by avoiding any gruesome portrayal of violence and killing. Lawrence understands that they aren’t necessary - brutal oppression is as powerful in the mind as it is on the screen, after all - but it takes a competent director to harness that quality. Unlike the first film, I never once felt while watching this film, “they really needed to show that”, because Lawrence is able to wring every ounce of impact from these moments while never showing any of it. His direction of action sequences is fantastic, and the film feels technically balanced, with a fantastic sound mix and a James Newton Howard score that amplifies the emotions of the film in the moment, even if it’s not all that memorable.

The ensemble cast is strong here, but the film - and the entire series - is hinged on one character, Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence is, simply, a force. She is unequivocally perfect for this role, but after seeing her performance here it’d be difficult to suggest a role she wouldn’t be perfect for. She immerses herself in every scene, every reaction, every emotion, and so embodies her character that it’s difficult to imagine what this film would be without her. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch and Donald Sutherland’s President Snow are also incredibly strong performances within this film, while the conflicting love interests of Peeta and Gale (Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth) are portrayed far better in this film than the last, there’s still a lot to be desired from them. Both Peeta and Gale, despite their importance to the series, feel as much part of the ensemble as new additions like Finnick (Sam Claflin), simply because they lack the necessary chemistry, and the scenes demanding a connection with Katniss are held together solely by Jennifer Lawrence’s abilities.

The characters portrayed by Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks (Caesar and Effie) are our connection to life in the Capital district. It’s these characters, with their ridiculous fashion and naive understanding of the big picture, that demonstrate how vastly different the world of the privileged is from that of the oppressed, but it’s also within these characters that we begin to see its unravelling. Tucci does this magnificently with only his facial expressions, and his ridiculous character, which is minor here, becomes grounded solely because of the competency of the talented actor portraying him. Banks, on the other hand, struggles to connect and despite her character’s attempts to prove her worth and understanding as part of Katniss’s support group, a horribly-accented performance ultimately falters but does manage to deliver its intended ideas.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a welcome addition to the now quite-large cast, and does a solid job in the role of evil mastermind gamemaker, but there’s not a lot of meat for him to really sink his teeth into, which is a shame. Jeffrey Wright is also present, in a role that pretty much drops him into the same role we’ve seen him play countless times - the heavily-enunciating intellectual - and Jena Malone delivers an interesting performance as a wild and unpredictable ally. But, like many other tertiary characters, these are all roles that are two-dimensional and largely stay out of the way, and that’s probably a good thing with a cast of this size.

I am hesitant to see what happens with the third two-part instalment of this series. It’s by a great margin the weakest of the books, and despite its far-reaching scale it spends far too much time alone with our protagonist - as a book, it’s a story arc that didn’t resonate with me in the way I felt it should as a closing chapter of the series. But after seeing Catching Fire, I have a feeling that with Francis Lawrence remaining at the helm and with Jennifer Lawrence depicting Katniss so vividly, the whiny and largely inconsequential Katniss of the third book may actually be given a new life cinematically - one that’s worth watching.