As someone who really liked The Hunger Games I was fully prepared for Catching Fire to be a disappointment. When a franchise loses a director in the manner in which Gary Ross departed between these films it’s usually not a very good sign. My concern compounded further when it was announced that Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) had been tapped to replace him. There have been elements of Lawrence’s work that I’ve appreciated in the past, but I’ve never been able to thoroughly enjoy one of his films.
That changes now. Catching Fire is better than the first film in almost every way. Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn’s script is possibly the tightest and most structurally high functioning that I’ve ever seen in a YA adaptation. It also helps that the film barely even feels YA. The stakes are much higher, the characters trend older and the whole thing feels very much like a solid dystopian action film (with nice horror touches like raining blood that will please the Battle Royale crossover crowd attracted by the first installment).
Almost a year has passed since the 74th annual Hunger Games from the first film. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned to District 12 and has tentatively resumed her courtship with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), even though he’s still feeling the sting of her staged PDA’s with fictional boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). There’s a press tour looming, one in which Katniss and Peeta have to resume the pose and travel to all of the districts, honoring their dead tributes. Not long after, they are summoned for the “Quarter Quell” – a special 75th anniversary of the games in which the tributes are culled from a small pool of prior victors (this is pretty much the biggest f*ck you ever from the Capitol, and even tributes who are groomed to play nice can’t publicly conceal their disdain).
At first it may seem as though Catching Fire is something of a retread of the first film. It’s not. While they both spend an equal amount of time dealing with the build-up to the games and the games themselves, the context is completely different. Most of the districts are on the brink of revolution and the entire purpose of culling their past victors is a gambit on the behalf of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) designed to destroy Katniss as a symbol of hope. Katniss herself is also much more savvy and politically aware, so much so that nearly every scenario that seems replicated has actually been flipped on its head. One of the big successes of both films is that they understand how the game is played. Not only how the public can be manipulated, but how the powers that be can be painted into compromising situations that force them to either keep up or abandon the ruse. They work in tandem, like two gears grinding against each other to get the overarching ideology into drive.
Other areas of improvement extend to the supporting cast, which is given a welcome boost from Sam Claflin and Jena Malone, two tributes that may seem broadly drawn at first but reveal hidden depths as the games go on. Philip Seymour Hoffman also joins as the new game master (Plutarch Heavensbee), and he might be the MVP of the film. These movies play on an operatic scale with their political allegory, but Hoffman is the one who really nails the cynicism on the head by going small and demonstrating how insidious evil can be in its banality. It’s incredibly entertaining to watch.
Lawrence and his DP Jo Willems also shoot the hell out of this thing. I didn’t mind the “shaky-cam” from The Hunger Games, but that’s pretty much gone here regardless. Catching Fire effortlessly oscillates between sweeping grandeur and tight close-ups, never losing focus on which aspect of any given scene is the most important. There’s a lot of humanity here and it’s the reason the action and the allegory work, you really care about these people.
Catching Fire is also unabashedly entertaining, but it has so much more on its mind than that. It’s kind of amazing to see a blockbuster in today’s corporate climate this willing to attack our current economic and political cancers. It’s literally biting the hand that feeds, and I have to applaud that. Of course, that subversion would be worthless if the film wasn’t any good – but this has the makings of a populist classic. Catching Fire might very well be this generation’s Empire Strikes Back (and it certainly has a lot more to say).
Note: I gave this film an 8/10 but wouldn’t be surprised if my opinion of it snuck up to a 9 after another viewing.