Just when she thought she was out . . . they pull her back in. In this next installment of The Hunger Games, Katniss finds herself Capitol Enemy #1 as she and Peeta are forced back into the arena once again.
Within the first few paragraphs of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, I was hooked. I loved the book so much that I couldn’t wait to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay — but I had resigned myself to the fact that neither of them could possibly be as good as the first novel.
I was wrong. Catching Fire was my favorite of the three, and I have great news for fans who are excited to see it on the big screen: it’s excellent. Gone is the shaky-cam that made me so queasy while watching Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games, and that’s probably because the franchise is now under the control of director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants). In Catching Fire, Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael DeBruyn (Little Miss Sunshine) achieve the perfect balance of drama, humor and action. What’s more, they made the new arena come to life just how I had imagined it in my head, which was one of my main issues with last year’s movie — I didn’t feel it captured the viciousness of the creatures the tributes encountered as they fought against each other for their lives.
But let me back up for a second for those who may not have read the books. Here’s what’s going on this time around: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned victorious from the arena after their Hail Mary move of threatening a double-suicide via poisonous berries succeeded in shutting down the Games. But aside from keeping herself and her faux-boyfriend alive, Katniss has achieved something else: the complete and utter wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). He’s threatened by the hope that Katniss has given to the downtrodden citizens of Panem, and he will not stand for it. So he makes it perfectly clear that if District 12′s heroine does not put on a happy face and play along for the cameras during her and Peeta’s Victory Tour across the country, he will kill everyone she loves.
But after her lifelong friend and possibly-true-love Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is tormented by Capitol police and millions see Katniss try to save him, Snow runs out of patience. He brings in a new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, yay!), to design a ruthless arena for the newly made-up “Quarter Quell.” Meaning, out of nowhere Snow decides that the 75th Hunger Games will be a special event that will draw its tributes from each district’s past winners. So Katniss is going back in no matter what.
Jennifer Lawrence has clearly established herself as a force to be reckoned with ever since she got Hollywood’s attention in Winter’s Bone (that Oscar last year didn’t hurt, either), and I strongly believe that the success of this movie franchise rested completely on her shoulders last year. She was able to prove to millions of Hunger Games fans that she IS Katniss, and does an even more convincing job in Catching Fire now that the Everdeen family is being more directly threatened and Katniss’ role in the country’s future is becoming clearer. There’s both torment and determination in her face, but she’s not completely in control of her emotions just yet. (The scene right before she’s shot up into the new arena is particularly heartbreaking, for reasons I won’t spoil.)
If there’s any small criticism I have of Catching Fire, it’s that it takes kinda long for the action to kick into high gear. However, things really start moving once Katniss is reunited with her old team (with Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks’ Effie and Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna as standouts), gets back into training mode and meets her opponents. Speaking of, this time it’s not quite so uncomfortable as the whole “past winners” rule means it’s no longer all kids and young people trying to kill each other. There’s the always-enjoyable Jeffrey Wright as brainiac Beetee, Lynn Cohen as the elderly mute Mags (Magda playing Mags!), Jena Malone as the feisty Johanna, and Sam Claflin as golden-boy Finnick. among many others. We get to know at least a few of these competitors better than we did those in The Hunger Games.
What didn’t change is that Stanley Tucci is just as over-the-top as TV host and tribute-interviewer Caesar Flickerman. Actually, I think he was even better in Catching Fire, and that’s saying something. Another overloading of flare comes from Trish Summerville’s costumes — not only for Effie and the Capitol’s citizenry, but also for Katniss during her interviews with Caesar and the Games’ opening ceremonies.
And the arena this time. Wow. A gorgeous island setting plus flawless special effects equals perfection.
Though there are moments of levity throughout (Haymitch’s take on the past winners was a high point) and plenty of heart-pounding action in the last half, what Catching Fire does best is capture the growing sense of outrage across Panem. Despair is turning into anger. Fear is turning into defiance. It is evident on the faces of every person in the districts as Katniss and Peeta tour, and all of the major cast members do an excellent job of showing just enough emotion at just the right times that the subtle yet escalating tension is always present. This is a country on the brink of rebellion, and there’s nothing President Snow is going to be able to do to stop it. The hope that Katniss has brought to the country has indeed sparked a flame, and as the movie draws to an abrupt end, you know that all hell is about to break loose in next year’s Mockingjay — Part I.
Refresh your memory of The Hunger Games!