Do you review a sequel with the assumption everyone reading saw the first film or is it important to offer some background information for those that may have skipped the first film or simply need a refresher? The question, as it turns out, is one the filmmakers of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire seemed to have a little difficulty in answering themselves when it comes to the sophomore effort in the franchise. The first hour or so slogs through a rather dull opening, making sure the audience understands where we’ve been and where we’re going. Fortunately, after trudging through, the audience is rewarded with a satisfying final two acts even if the film feels a little incomplete by the end.
Catching Fire returns us to the oppressive future world of Panem, where citizens of 12 districts are held under the thumb of the Capital and beaten and killed if they step out of line. This second part in the story begins with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) returning home from her victory at the 74th Hunger Games. She’s doing a little hunting in the woods and suffering from a little PTSD as her best friend and conflicted love interest, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), comforts her and lays on a little guilt trip due to her manufactured “love” for her fellow Hunger Games victor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Their little stunt at the end of the last film may have allowed Katniss and Peeta to be the first ever joint victors at the Hunger Games but President Snow (Donald Sutherland) isn’t buying it.
While threatening everyone she loves, Snow lets Katniss know it would be in her best interest to continue to convince the twelve Districts of Panem she really is in love with Peeta, tempering the presumed act of defiance, which very well could lead to an all-out uprising against the Capital.
Much like the first film (which I was far too kind on back in 2012), once you get beyond the setup the focus becomes the action in the arena as the 75th Hunger Games gets underway, though behind-the-scenes scheming is clearly at play. President Snow needs to ensure he’s able to control Katniss and the slow building uprising with her as the figurehead. At the suggestion of his new gamesmaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman), this newest Games will pull its combatants from the pool of previous victors. Of course, Snow overlooks what would appear to be the clear martyrdom of his nemesis, but it isn’t as if the thematic power of this franchise was ever that clandestine.
Lawrence continues to grow as an actress, serving as a strong lead for the franchise, while the one thing The Hunger Games franchise continues to have over any current young adult adaptation competition is a great supporting cast.
Sutherland as President Snow is a casting decision that’s only going to get better as we move to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 — the installment in the franchise anyone who’s read the books has been looking forward to ever since the film adaptations were announced — but given the dour nature of the storyline, perhaps the most important casting decisions are that of Elizabeth Banks as the upbeat Effie Trinket and Stanley Tucci as the toothy, Hunger Games showman Caesar Flickerman. Banks and Tucci offer necessary moments of reprieve from the tension and both are very good in Catching Fire, Banks is especially integral, bringing an important level of humanity to the project along with her moments of vanity and unintentional (on her part at least) humor.
Notable additions to the league of Hunger Games combatants are Sam Claflin as the cocky, yet caring Finnick Odair, Jena Malone as the outspoken Johanna Mason and Jeffrey Wright as the MacGyver-esque Beetee. None of them necessarily stand out from the crowd as much as they play their part, though I did appreciate the balance Claflin struck while playing Finnick, a character that very easily could have devolved into the stereotypical cock-of-the-walk opposite Lawrence’s strong-willed Katniss, but he came across as much more than that.
Following in the footsteps of The Hunger Games director and co-writer Gary Ross, the keys to the Hunger Games kingdom have been handed over to director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and this time with a script from Oscar winners Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). It was evident to me all three seemed to need to find their bearings as they entered this world for the first time, but once they found their footing things begin to progress nicely. It will be interesting, however, to see how Mockingjay turns out as Beaufoy and Arndt were replaced by Danny Strong (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) for the two-part finale.
As far as an overall handle on the franchise, Lawrence understands the nature of the situation at hand is enough to convince the audience things aren’t good for the lower classes in Panem, he doesn’t need to wallow in handheld shaky-cam depression. However, at just shy of two-and-a-half hours the film is easily 20 minutes too long, most from its opening hour as well as a few random, unnecessary asides. Yet, to its credit, the final 90 minutes or so are tightly woven and go by so quick the movie comes to a rather jarring conclusion not at all unlike the final, abrupt minutes of Matrix Reloaded. In fact, the two films share nearly identical final shots, and while it’s in keeping with Suzanne Collins‘ books, as a movie it does leave the film feeling rather incomplete.
Once we get out of the grey and dirtied outer districts the production design seems vastly improved from the first film, leaving the impression they actually spent some money and time considering what they were putting together. Additionally, the silliness of the Capital fashion doesn’t seem as absurd as it did before as much as it seems a part of the landscape. This could obviously be as a result of familiarity with the so-called fashion, but I felt it was more attributable to Lawrence’s ability to maintain focus on story rather than pointing and essentially saying, “Hey! Look at that guy’s outfit! And her’s too!”
In terms of story and franchise, comparisons to Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back are sure to be made as the two stories share kinship in the oppressed rising up against the oppressors and while most of Catching Fire is an improvement on the first film it still feels like a franchise experimenting with the best way to tell the story for a PG-13 audience, which really should be interesting moving forward. If Catching Fire is any indication, by the end it seems the kinks have been worked out and with Lawrence returning to film Mockingjay I have confidence things are only going to get better from here.