“You fought very hard in the games, Ms. Everdeen. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war?” This is a warning given to Katniss Everdeen (Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) from the malicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) early on in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the superb sequel to the 2012 franchise starter. This warning notifies the audience that the stakes are indeed higher for not only Katniss but also those very close to her as a rebellion brews amongst the districts. In comparison to its predecessor, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is more bleak and consequential, which itself is a vast improvement over the already impressive and engaging young adult sci-fi narrative of The Hunger Games.
Catching Fire, which is the second of four films based on Suzanne Collins‘ best-selling trilogy, opens one year after Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) won the 74th Hunger Games. Their victory and on-camera romance have exceedingly transformed their public image, making them the powerhouse celebrity couple of the dystopian society of Panem but off-camera they’re barely close friends. While putting on a brave and artificial smile in front of the camera for her and Peeta’s safety, Katniss is restless as she’s struggling to cope with the psychological damaged inflicted from what she was forced to do in order to survive the games. She tries to return to familiarity back in District 12, where she now lives in the Victors’ Village, an upscale but seemingly deserted subdivision with her family.
Katniss and Peeta soon embark on a “victory tour”, as they travel with the tipsy and protective Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the exuberant Effie (the always-delightful Elizabeth Banks) to each district. While on the tour, Katniss and Peeta showcase sympathy that connects to people, as Katniss is desired to be the symbol of the impending rebellion against the Capitol as riots and dissent prove to be a threat to the Capitol and President Snow because of her audacious actions in the games and the symbolism of her mockingjay pin. Consequently, anything that Katniss does to evoke or encourage the people to show support will lead to public execution by the so-called “peacekeepers.”
Determined to stop the rebellion before it gets out of control, President Snow hires a new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to plan ways to quell the rebels. As the 75th Annual Hunger Games is near, President Snow announces the Quarter Quell, where the tributes from each district are chosen among the victors of the previous Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta are soon forced from their homes in District 12 once again to be immersed into a more dangerously and controlled arena to fight for survival.
Jennifer Lawrence is flawless as Katniss. Her performance brings the character to life from the page to the screen with impact and likeability. Lawrence can reveal the bravery and unsentimental values of Katniss without a single line of dialogue. In this film especially, Lawrence’s performance is as powerful as the character that she’s portraying even though Katniss is a little damaged psychologically. Josh Hutcherson is proving that as he matures, he’s becoming a much better actor. In Catching Fire, there’s a little bit more depth to the character of Peeta as we start to really understand his inner torment of being involved with an artificial romance with Katniss. The chemistry between the two and their performances drives the film. There are quite a few notable supporting performances such as Sam Claflin as the charming Finnick Odair, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the intimidating Plutarch Heavensbee and Jena Malone as the fierce Johanna Mason.
In The Hunger Games, the threats that the tributes faced were each other. In this, the tributes face threats that prove to be dangerous forces and obstacles such as poisonous mist, killer monkeys, a tidal wave and electrical barriers throughout the arena that’s a lot more intricately designed than the arena in the first film. This makes the Quarter Quell sequence undeniably entertaining and thrilling, mostly due to the strong visual effects and performances. As entertaining as the Quarter Quell sequence was, the most compelling part of the film was everything that came before it because of how smartly written the first and second acts are.
In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the characters and the relationships between them are more complex and developed, especially the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. The writing in general is a lot stronger as themes that drive the narrative become more apparent alongside the political undertones, stronger character development, and the spectacle of the sci-fi action. Credit is all due to the screenplay written by Oscar-winners Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3).
Francis Lawrence, who directed I Am Legend and Water For Elephants, took over the directing reigns from Gary Ross and thankfully so. He has redeveloped the world of Panem and the districts so that the world is a little less fantastical. The bleakness exposed throughout the film directly fits within the direction of the story as characters lose lives outside of the arena and the lives of Katniss and everyone she cares about are threatened. The film is as engaging as it is because of Lawrence’s direction and his keenness on development of characters and the narrative within this fascinating dystopian world. It certainly helps that he is a visually gifted director, who can bring a sense of lavish and sophisticated visuals to help bring Panem to life. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire exceeded expectations. It’s a remarkable sequel that’s thrilling for its thematic, engaging narrative.