The consequences of war are far-reaching and come fast in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to box office juggernaut The Hunger Games. Based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling novels about a teenage girl’s fight against an oppressive, sadistic government, the thrilling Catching Fire brings out strong themes of inequality, the politics of fear, and the psychological impact of battle on people of all ages. Fully engrossing, and far stronger than its forerunner, Catching Fire keeps the sense of suspense throughout with a few dips, and backs up its plot content with plenty of action to hold audience interest. The two-hour-and-fifteen-minute run time hardly feels like it, when you’re swept away by the despotic world of Francis Lawrence’s Panem.
Do not volunteer. There are SPOILERS behind the cut.
Fresh off her co-victory in the violent arena of the Games, it’s back to reality for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). But the Capitol has hardly relinquished its hold on her life, as sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threatens everyone she loves if she cannot convince the public that her romance with Peeta, the other victor, is faithful and true. Snow is looking to distract and pacify an increasingly agitated public, who have rallied around Katniss after her defiant acts in the Games. As Katniss and Peeta witness on their Victor’s Tour of the other districts, the people, underfed, overworked, and exploited by the corrupt Capitol, are on the verge of revolution. Caught between a tour that never ends, as Peeta and Katniss resign themselves to being forced to perform for the cameras for the rest of their lives, and a ferocious uprising, Katniss must make the most difficult choice of her life. Especially when a new threat is concocted by Snow – a special anniversary Hunger Games that draws its tributes from the already existing pool of Victors, pushing Katniss back into her worst nightmare.
Director Francis Lawrence does not commit many of his predecessor’s sins (though he too has an unrestrained fondness for close-ups), making stronger directorial choices, and he is helped by a significantly higher budget, raised from the first film’s $80 million to $140 million. Catching Fire is shot with more patience and takes in a wider scope, and the writing has also greatly improved. One of the ways that The Hunger Games dropped the ball was in externalizing the internal dialogues and decisions of its characters, and Lawrence spends some time at Catching Fire’s start playing emotional catch-up. The trap of falsified romance that Katniss and Peeta have found themselves in is highly focused on throughout the film, as are Katniss’ increasingly cloudy feelings towards her two love interests, her co-champion Peeta, and childhood friend Gale. More importantly, her mixed feelings about her own place in the world, as both symbol and celebrity, are brought to the fore.
Lawrence’s Panem is bleaker and harsher than our first look at the sci-fi world, dealing in authoritarian violence, large-scale poverty, and PTSD. The Capitol, by contrast, is more decadent than ever, featuring a citizenry who are more like couture mannequins than real people, elaborate food spreads, and, in a nod to ancient Rome, a stomach-clearing drink that induces vomiting (so that party-goers can engage in even more eating). There’s a surer sense of world-building at play in Catching Fire, not only through looks at the other districts, but in characters’ expression of their world view. We learn, for example, how isolated the districts are from each other, cut off from anything except for a heavily edited news feed. It is due to this isolation that Katniss acts as both uniting symbol and unwitting messenger, having glanced at life outside her own borders, and hearing of the riots caused by her visits.
Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off last year’s Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, gets ample opportunity to show off her acting chops here. Her Katniss is relatable, played as reluctant and cooperative at the start, and evolving into a full-tilt rebel leader by the closing shot. So much of Katniss, at times a reserved character, must be externalized, and Lawrence no. 2 is aided by the stronger screenwriting this go-round. Many extreme feelings must be relayed in a short period of time, as Katniss’ sorrow and tremendous fear turn to rage at all that the Capitol has wrought. To have a dramatically believable protagonist in a complex, action-filled film is no small feat, and Lawrence keeps Katniss as tough as she needs to be while still baring her heart to the audience.
Katniss isn’t the only one who must struggle with how to fight back against Snow’s iron-fisted rule. One by one, each cast member shows their resistance, sometimes the only way they can. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) becomes more in this film than a foppish coach, showing honest sympathy in the only ways that she knows how. The fact that she, a true creature of the Capitol, expresses her genuine regret that her charges must return to the games, is a small gesture with huge implications. Similarly, Katniss’ stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) participates in a visual act of rebellion by tweaking her ‘wedding dress’ to transform into the wings of a mockingjay, knowing as he must the dire consequences of such a choice. Even Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), portrayed previously as a drunken, irritable wash-up, shows his bravery by offering to volunteer in Peeta’s place, should his name be called up in the new drawing.
It’s not only those officially on Katniss’ side that make known their displeasure with the all-star Games. Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) is a District 7 tribute furious at her return, who spews curses at President Snow and the Games on national television. Johanna is a firebrand, a psychological predator in the training arena who psychs out her competition by fully disrobing in an elevator with them. The scene is not exploitive, shot from the shoulders up, and with hardly any leering enjoyment from the two men involved except for a comment by Haymitch, who it is expected from. It is much more about psychological warfare and personality than it is about nudity, and Lawrence keeps it classy.
But not every aspect of a 400-page novel can be successfully translated. As Katniss and Peeta journey to the other districts, we get the closest view of District 11, a farming community made up predominately of poor Black workers, that may seem strange, or even have unfortunate historical connotations. The movies, far more than the books, do not take expository steps to place Panem on Earth, much less the North American continent, meaning that a division by region that would create that racial makeup is not a factor in audience’s minds. Because of this, Katniss’ appearance as symbolic figurehead, while part of a moving scene, also echoes Hollywood’s obsession with the White Savior. (See…everything, ever, with a few choice exceptions.)
Catching Fire is, for the most part, a straight, taunt line of action, but falters, ironically, once Katniss finds herself once again in the Games arena. A lot of time is spent figuring out allies and plans, cutting some of the tension of the situation out. Thankfully, Director Lawrence does not cut away so often to the Gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman)’s control room, keeping what’s happening in the arena as the focal point. Just when it seemed that the ending (a cliffhanger that links Catching Fire to the two-part Mockingjay) might be dragging its feet, the film rallies for a spectacular finish, with a memorable last shot.
Emerging from the dark of the theater, I was heartened to realize that the audience I had enjoyed my screening with was largely made up of young women, of diverse backgrounds. Truancy issues aside (this was midday on a Friday) from their post-movie discussion they had clearly read the source material, and were over the moon about Katniss being such a “beast”. For those of us who must deal daily with the assertion by Hollywood and the culture at large that young women are not a viable audience for their large-scale action flicks, to see the audience makeup of this screening left me in high spirits. Actual exit surveys for films like The Hunger Games series offer a very different picture of who’s going to the movies than the myth of the young, white, male. To those who are teenagers now, perhaps encroaching on the carefully guarded geek priesthood, they need only look around to see others like them. I salute them, I support them, and I say… go to class.
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