The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instantly goes on the short list of sequels that not only surpass the original film, but the source material as well. (For the record, I'd also put the second James Bond outing From Russia with Love and Peter Jackson's thrilling distillation of The Two Towers in that rarefied air.)
Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me Catching Fire handily qualifies as the weakest installment in Suzanne Collins's hit YA trilogy, with the author conveniently finding a way to more or less repeat the events of the first book, stalling for time until she figures out her endgame. Narratively, the movie version still qualifies as wheel-spinning, spending much of its time maneuvering the characters into place for the two-part final chapter, coming to a theater near you in the fall of 2014 and 2015 respectively. (Amusingly, the film doesn't bother with an introduction or even a real ending, taking it for granted that the audience is well aware of what has come before and that there's still two more installments to go.) But thanks to several key changes in authorship behind the camera -- namely, Francis Lawrence replacing Gary Ross in the director's chair and Oscar winners Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt taking over screenplay duties from Ross and Collins -- it doesn't feel that way in execution. This new creative team doesn't just repeat the previous film or the book… they substantially improve upon both.
It's funny, even though I've enjoyed several of his films (specifically the first two acts of I Am Legend and all the Tilda Swinton scenes in Constantine), I've never considered Lawrence a great director and I wouldn't change that assessment now. But he's the right director for this material, bringing a heightened sense of style to a post-apocalyptic setting that previously appeared flat and lifeless. (It's worth noting, of course, that the phenomenal success of the first film awarded Lawrence a significantly higher budget than Ross had to play with. Furthermore, Lawrence benefits substantially from a lot of the heavy-lifting that his predecessor did on the exposition front.) Much like Alan Taylor did with the Thor sequel, Lawrence adds texture and depth to the franchise's world, not just in the battle arena where the titular televised games are waged -- which now possesses a distinct geography and environment that was missing from the previous movie's more generic battlefield -- but also in the various poverty-stricken Districts, where the competitors are culled from, and the lavish Capitol as well.
This is the kind of showmanship that was missing from the first Hunger Games and I mean it as a compliment to Lawrence when I say that the Games themselves are actually the least stimulating part of Catching Fire. Instead, he successfully expands the scope of the franchise beyond the original kids-killing-kids hook, a vitally important development considering what's in store in the next two installments. In Ross's film, the build-up to the Games was sluggish and pedestrian; working in concert with the new writing team of Beaufoy and Arndt, Lawrence makes that material the meat of the movie rather than just an overlong prelude. Ninety full minutes of the movie's two-and-a-half hour runtime elapse before the horn goes off signaling the start of the 75th Hunger Games and, by that point, it's almost disappointing to see the characters spring into action. That's not to say that the Games themselves, which constitute one long, practically non-stop 45-minute action set-piece, disappoint. Lawrence choreographs the action with more coherence and less shaky-cam than Ross did and successfully visualizes the major innovation that separates this battlefield from the last one. (To quote one of the characters, "Tick tock.") On the downside, like his predecessor, he can't find an effective way to communicate the idea that these Games are a reality show as well as an endurance competition (a key aspect of the novels) and also runs headlong into dodgy CGI in more than a few sequences. Perhaps what's most surprising is how low-stakes the action inside the Arena feels compared to all the intrigue happening outside it.
For those who have somehow managed to skip the books and are following along with the movies, this one revolves around the evolution of Katniss Everdeen (newly minted Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence) from inexperienced warrior to reluctant, PTSD-stricken symbol of a fledgling revolution. Since her defiant stand at the end of the previous Games, which saved both her life and the life of her showmantic partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss has been carrying around the weight of all the boys and girls that perished during that trial by fire (and by mutations… and tracker jackers… and nightlock berries), both at her own hands and the hands of others. She's so shaken by her experience, she doesn’t realize the spark that her actions ignited in the restless, downtrodden masses that populate the Districts. But Panem's leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), is all too aware of what Katniss has come to symbolize and resorts to a variety of extreme measures to stamp out the smoldering embers of revolution. With the help of new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow realizes that his best option is to make the next Hunger Games an all-star edition, forcing past winners back into the ring to fight to the death all over again… including Katniss and Peeta, who still carries a torch for the Girl on Fire even though she's more attracted to her former hunting pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Can I just say that this romantic triangle has always been my least favorite aspect of anything Hunger Games-related? It's the lamest, least essential element of the books, a YA trope that Collins dutifully included because that's what the genre demands. The movies haven't improved upon the Team Peeta/Team Gale nonsense one iota; if anything, they've made its pointlessness more pronounced because Lawrence's Katniss is such a ferocious screen presence, neither of these mopey wet blankets are remotely in her league. (Thought I do have to give some credit to Hutcherson for embracing the idea that Peeta is, in essence, the franchise's damsel in distress. Another young male star might demand a scene or two where he gets to be the alpha dog, but the actor awards Lawrence the action hero spotlight at every turn.) Beaufoy and Arndt seem as disinterested in this material as the audience, and mostly try to get through it as painlessly as possible so that they can move onto the characters and relationships that actually have some juice. They're helped along by the shift in gameplay from an all-kids Games to a kids vs. adults Games, which allows for the employment of such veteran character actors as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lynn Cohen, who know how to make the most out of small supporting roles.
On the other hand, my favorite aspect of The Hunger Games film franchise remains its star. With a blockbuster under her belt and an Oscar in hand, it would have been easy for Lawrence to simply repeat her already-strong star turn from the previous movie, but she puts in the effort to draw a clear distinction between who Katniss was then and who she's become now. The fierce will and battle-tested survival skills are still there, but if anything, she's less of a warrior this time around. Her desire to not fight -- to not kill -- is tangible, to the point where one almost suspects that, were Peeta not present and in need of her protection, she'd find a tree to hide in and just wait for the Games to end… or death to find her. It's a far more affecting, nuanced performance than this kind of material generally allows for and, if you've already read ahead, you'll be able to appreciate how expertly Lawrence has pivoted Katniss to eventually arrive at the dark destination that awaits her at the end of Mockingjay.
It's because of Lawrence -- rather than the movies themselves -- that I'm glad The Hunger Games film franchise exists and is a legitimate worldwide phenomenon. Because whatever flaws the individual films might have (major in the case of the first one and minor here), their success challenges the sadly still-prevailing assumption that a mass audience won't turn out for a female-led blockbuster series -- an assumption that results in Black Widow playing the perpetual sidekick to the male Avengers in their own movies instead of getting her own standalone spin-off or Jack Ryan getting not just one, but two franchise reboots while nobody bothers taking another run at V.I. Warshawski or Evelyn Salt. While there's a long list of series-driving action heroines to choose from on television -- from Xena to Buffy Summers to Sydney Bristow to Olivia Dunham -- it's unfortunate that, when it comes to movies, the only name that springs readily to mind remains Ellen Ripley… and maybe Sarah Connor. (To be fair, movies like Elektra, Catwoman and One for the Money were all intended to serve as franchise-starters -- they just stunk.) Lawrence's Katniss continues to feed that hunger for big screen female heroes, while Catching Fire itself provides better-than-average sci-fi spectacle.
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