Director: Francis Lawrence; Writer: Simon Beafoy, Michael Arndt (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel); Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrleson, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Willow Shields, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz; Running time: 146 minutes; Certification: 12A
Life isn’t any easier for Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) after winning the 74th Hunger Games as she struggles to withstand the spotlight of celebrity and maintain her faux relationship with Peeta (Hutcherson) to appease the masses. With rebellion looming, President Snow (Sutherland) feels she is an expendable symbol of hope to the people of the districts, and so in a roundabout way of getting rid of her, decides that the contestants for the 75th games are to consist of the games’ previous winners.
The Hunger Games is certainly catching fire with the box office. Reportedly raking in a whopping $70m on its opening day in America alone (which is ridiculous), Catching Fire comes only a year after the first film hit our screens, which also did incredibly well, and it will only be another year until the next entry in the series does the same, with Mockingjay parts 1 and 2 (the standard Hollywood procedure to split the final part of a book series in two) currently filming simultaneously. Something about it is obviously working with the public, but it’s rather interesting that such an idea would work so well with a younger audience.
Suzanne Collins’ novel is basically Battle Royale for teenagers, where a bunch of kids are put into an arena and made to fight to the death. Pretty grim stuff indeed, and while of course it’s less in-your-face violent than Battle Royale, it’s still surprising that both films have been awarded 12A ratings in the UK. The level of violence on-screen isn’t really the problem; it’s the idea that’s so horrifying, and shouldn’t really be suitable for kids under 15. However, it’s probably not the idea that keeps the younger viewers so enthralled; it’s the role model found within it.
Katniss Everdeen is an easily relatable heroin. Strong, independent, empathetic, sensitive, kind… the list of complimentary adjectives goes on. There’s no doubt that it’s she who has captured the hearts and minds of many readers and viewers alike as she toils away in an unfair, cruel world as a solitary symbol of hope and freedom. The casting of the wonderful, Oscar-winning, pretty much impossible to dislike Jennifer Lawrence only helps to further Katniss’ image (it certainly captures the viewers’ hearts), and she once again puts in a fantastic performance that continues to prove she can do no wrong. Her supporting cast ups their game, too, in a reportedly tough, swampy shoot in Hawaii, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman joining an already brilliant list of names. It should probably be stated, of course, that Hoffman isn’t one of those crawling around in the jungle, but he’s still really good.
Catching Fire is a lot more interesting than the first film. The Hunger Games is decent and enjoyable, but it always felt too much like a convoluted and tamed down version of the aforementioned brilliant but brutal Battle Royale. Catching Fire escapes from such comparisons and becomes much more its own story, primarily because the games this time around aren’t actually the central focus of the narrative; they come in as much more of a backseat addition the bigger story. While the structure of the two films remains very similar, the first half of Catching Fire – unlike its predecessor – isn’t simply gearing up towards the inevitable fight to the death and focusing on the shock and abhorrence of the whole thing.
Instead, the story is slowly gravitating towards rebellion and revolution amongst the poverty-stricken districts, making for far more compelling and exciting drama. When the 75th games do finally arrive, they’re oddly not the most riveting part of the film. Exciting, yes, but not really as interesting as everything that went before, and as soon as they’re over we’re left on a fantastic gut-puncher of a cliffhanger for the next installment. What Catching Fire really does is give us a much clearer sense of the wider situation in this dystopian future.
Francis Lawrence is a very welcome replacement as director, taking over shot-calling duties from Gary Ross. While he doesn’t entirely get rid of the horrendous shaky cam that plagued much of the first film (the final fight was genuinely headache-inducing), his direction is generally solid. He brings a maturity and focus to the film, making it feel like a story that needs to be told rather than simply a piece of entertainment, and it’s comforting news that he’s also at the helm of the next two installments. Using everything in his knowledge book, Lawrence has made at least one viewer very excited about a franchise that not so long ago he was very indifferent about.
Apparently the third book, Mockingjay, is a let-down, but it’s hard to see how that’s possible with Catching Fire leaving us so tantalizingly on the verge of something fantastic. If the next two films do turn out to be huge disappointments, there’s no taking away from Catching Fire‘s achievements. This can safely be put down as one of the better blockbusters of the year, and definitely a sequel that’s more exciting, more interesting and a lot more enjoyable than its original.