The Hunger Games trilogy of books exists in a strange divisive place in the pantheon of Young Adult Fiction. Fervent devotees of Suzanne Collins believe that Katniss Everdeen is deserving of a place of honor on the top floor alongside the likes of Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins, while detractors believe she should be jammed into the basement with Bella and her sparkly friends. Comparisons to other works aside, the world of Panem has found its own place in pop culture, grittier and more violent than others of its genre, and of course Hollywood was quick to snatch it up. 2012's The Hunger Games saved itself from embarrassment with a great cast and some endearing performances, but left me feeling somewhat cold. Like the Harry Potter movies before it, it was a fairly literal adaptation of the novel and I felt like, though adequate, it added very little to the world and was ultimately skippable. I approached Catching Fire with subdued expectations and was pleasantly surprised at how it proceeded to surpass each and every one of my assumptions to become one of my favorite movies of 2013.
Critics of both the page and the screen are quick to point out that Catching Fire follows a very similar trajectory to The Hunger Games in terms of both plot and structure. Most of us are familiar with the story at this point -- dystopian future world, starving masses, decadent ruling class, publicized arena battles to keep the populace entertained and terrified. Where Catching Fire exceeds its predecessor , though, is in the strength of its execution. All the elements of the first film that sort of worked all gel together very nicely here.
The biggest and most noticeable improvements over the original come from the director. The newly appointed Francis Lawrence has created a film that is stronger and more consistent in tone and feel than its predecessor, and more confident and skilled in its delivery. The irksome shaky-cam of the last film is gone, and the steadier lens is indicative of a steadier vision. Where the first film meandered and seemed confused about its identity, this one has a very clearly defined voice, and that voice is spoken to us via a wonderful cast.
Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss, and she carries this film with great success. In the years since The Hunger Games, Lawrence has developed that weird intangible quality that gives her the rare distinction of winning the approval of the Internet. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tim Hiddleston also have whatever this is, and although I don't understand it, I fully support it. While Katniss will always be introduced as the victor of the Hunger Games, Jennifer's appearances will be prefaced with "Academy Award Winner", and she herself has commented on the parallels between the two stories. Rare for an actress in a genre film, her performance here is stronger, more confident, more nuanced, and more realized than last time, and she has definitely grown into this character. I can't praise her enough -- she moves with ease between comedy, suffering, passion, numbness, and intensity. She plays both hot and cold and manages to strike the right balance between fighting the system and the grim acceptance of fate and her powerlessness within the system. Lawrence portrays strength while still making the character feel like a real person and not a superpowered caricature. I can't think of any other actress of her generation that could have done this as successfully, and I hope the person that decided to cast her in the first film is at least given an Edible Arrangements gift basket every Christmas.
At this point, the love triangle that appears in every story for young people is a tired trope, but its presence here wasn't overpowering. It doesn't feel out of place to me -- it actually makes a lot of sense that, when placed in two very different situations with two very different sources of stress, Katniss might also feel two very different ways about two very different people. Interestingly, while I felt that Katniss had more chemistry on the page with Gale than with Peeta, on the screen it is the opposite. This might have something to do with the fact that Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) is a better actor than Liam Hemsworth (Gale), but it was interesting to see this shift in perspective and was a helpful reminder that not all movie adaptations of novels are pointless.
Peeta is a tough role to do well -- on the page, he often felt weak and overly precious. Hutcherson takes this and creates a real person out of it. It becomes easier to understand why Katniss -- ordinarily so adept at self-preservation -- would want to sacrifice herself for him. This isn't a Bella "I love my boyfriend so much I would die for him!" situation. For Katniss, Peeta, like her sister Prim, becomes a symbol of all that is right and good in the world. Katniss herself -- always somewhat at odds with reconciling her own thoughts and feelings, and suffering from guilt that she is not as seemingly pure and selfless as those she loves, feels that this symbol is something worth protecting and dying for.
This inner conflict is one of many interesting themes running through this story. While of course subtext is generally more effective in a book where there is, well, text, this story is clear and simple enough to translate well onto the screen. While my generation that hovers on either side of 30 might find much of it to be obvious, we have to remember that for the intended age group, the ideas about using fear and distraction to keep a population in check are still relevant and subversive, and still as capable of giving children experiencing it for the first time the same sense of "oh shit, everything is a lie!" that we felt reading 1984 for the first time. There is also a lot of interesting things going on about the subjective nature of truth, and the value of lies and symbols and the sacrifice of personal integrity for something larger than oneself. All of these things work without detracting from the fact that the film can also work on its own merits as a fun action movie.
One of the other major improvements over the first film, though, is in its non-action scenes. While much of my time watching The Hunger Games was spent feeling impatient for the actual game portion to begin, I feel like Catching Fire is actually better in its quieter moments. The rest of the supporting cast have much to do with this. Donald Sutherland is thankfully given a more substantial role here, and his take on President Snow creates a very effective villain. Sutherland is a legendary actor and luckily Lawrence is a good enough actress to stand up to him in their scenes together -- scenes that crackle with tension and energy. This is a great rivalry, and it adds a sense of danger and menace that was lacking last time.
Elizabeth Banks once again injects some much needed levity into the situation as the ever popular Effie Trinket, but even she is given more to do this time around. While it's easy to write this character off as comic relief, we get occasional glimpses of something deeper in her character here, and there is something absolutely heartbreaking about seeing her cry. Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) and Stanley Tucci (Caesar) are both fantastic as well.
We also get to know more about some of the tributes this time around, which makes us more emotionally invested in the outcome of the games. Newcomers Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer use their relatively short amount of screen time well to endear us to fan favorites Beetee and Wiress, Jena Malone finally gives Katniss a worthy female rival with Joanna Mason, and Lynn Cohen breaks our hearts as Mags. The great Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also here as the new Head Gamemaker and delivers an unexpectedly complex performance. This is a phenomenal cast and these performances really make up for the fact that the script is really only average. Lenny Kravitz still feels like weird stunt casting, but I'll take it.
As with any big budget series film, the whole thing has to stay somewhat bland and crowd pleasing -- you can't take many risks when you spend $140 million to make a movie. Again, the script contains little that is particularly memorable, aside from all the lines that were clearly written to sound good in the trailers. While the direction succeeds in painting with big, broad strokes, I do wish there was a little more attention to the smaller details, But this is nitpicking -- everything about this film works, and it exceeded my expectations in every way. This is a fun and exciting action movie, for sure. But it is also shockingly brutal. While many have complained that they think the children-killing-children premise glorifies violence, I think it does the opposite. Two superheroes pounding on each other and destroying an entire city while both remain relatively unscathed is more of a glorification of violence than seeing the gritty consequences of the terrible events that these films depict. And as we get to know more about the people in this world, we begin to care more about the people in this world, and this movie is surprisingly emotional and powerful in that way. We cheer for Katniss along with the rest of the people of Panem, and we feel excitement as we see the first cracks appear in this awful regime that puts these people we love into danger. Watching these people try to survive and outsmart the system is exciting and rewarding. The Capitol owns their bodies, and the struggle to retain intellectual sovereignty is a particularly relevant and important battle, perhaps even moreso than the battle to be the last one standing at the end of the killing games. Catching Fire is everything a sequel should be, and although the end suffers a bit from The Empire Strikes Back middle-trilogy-film syndrome, I look forward to the next installment with great anticipation. The film's refrain -- "Remember who the enemy is" -- is a powerful takeaway message. Fans of the original and of YA genre films in general should not miss this. Rating: A-