photo: Lionsgate Entertainment
It says an awful lot when a film franchise can peddle exactly the same story twice and somehow render it better the second time around. Admittedly The Hunger Games: Catching Fire lacks the visceral impact of a first hit, and some of the stripped-back, raw tension that kicks in viewing after viewing of the original instalment is lost in this bigger-budget second round. But what Catching Fire lacks in novelty it more than makes up for in slicker direction, amped-up stakes and deeper exploration of the series’ potent thematic groundwork.
The action picks up in District 12 around six months after Katniss and Peeta’s subversive double victory in the 74th Hunger Games, and rebellion is brewing in the Districts. Eager to suppress a potential uprising, slimy dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland, whose conviction in the importance of these movies lends the franchise serious gravitas) wants Katniss to convince him and his people that her love for sweet baker’s boy Peeta is genuine. Easier said than done when it is revealed Snow has footage of Katniss snogging hunky hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth, giving big brother Chris a run for his money) in a shed. When Katniss and Peeta’s dummy romance fails to quench the fires of rebellion, Snow concocts a special 75th Anniversary edition of the Games. This time, all tributes are to be reaped from their district’s contingent of victors. As the only District 12 female ever to survive a Games, it’s time for Katniss to pick up her bow and head back into the arena.
A series of artfully composed opening shots confirm that we’re in surer hands with replacement director Francis Lawrence. There’s no more of Gary Ross’ awkward shaky-cam, and Suzanne Collins’ source novel gets the epic treatment it deserves. The half-baked world-building seen in the first film is fleshed out here with exquisite attention to detail (a dress made entirely of butterflies is a highlight) and everything from a pimped out CG arena that puts the original to shame, to two strangely erotic sequences involving water, is sexier and more stylish this time around. Crucially though, this new gloss never comes at the expense of the film’s soul.
By the time we are watching Katniss and Peeta battle do battle in a jungle of poisonous fog, blood rain and genetically engineered baboons, the action sequences seem nothing less than a continuation of the solid emotional drama. A host of former victors who become Katniss’ allies are all fully realised and instantly captivating, each one broken in their own way by surviving the Games. Yet Jennifer Lawrence remains the franchise’s greatest asset by a long way. She gives a magnificent performance as what must surely be the best fictional female role-model of our time; ferocious, vulnerable and entirely without vanity. Lawrence is ably served by the dependably endearing Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. The relationship between the girl on fire and the boy with the bread is the beating heart of the film, and this time Katniss might not be playing for the cameras.
With big ideas and bigger emotions, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire raises the bar for what audiences should expect from a popcorn movie. In the arena of blockbuster films, it slays the competition.