With Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I am Legend) taking over from the first film’s director, Gary Ross, the adaptation of the second instalment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is even bigger and better than last year’s effort. To be fair to Ross, the events of the second novel and the fact that the principal characters are already established works to Lawrence’s favour in allowing him to craft a film which, though long, is justifiably so and has a less languorous pace than The Hunger Games.
Catching Fire plunges us into the drab District 12, where Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is attempting to adjust to life post-games. This is interrupted by President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) announcement that the ‘special edition’ 75th Annual Hunger Games will shake up the usual formula by reaping tributes from surviving victors.
Catching Fire is almost structurally identical to its predecessor, but the film hardly suffers for it as the long-term implications of the last Hunger Games – both psychological and political – provide meaty subject matter which is grippingly explored.
It’s the growing political unrest in Panem that carries this instalment. Early sequences show Katniss and fellow victor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on a tour of the downtrodden districts, which, although designed to subdue the flickers of rebellion actually encourage them. Government Peacekeepers are becoming more brutal, and Catching Fire as a whole is less flinching in its portrayal of violence than the first Hunger Games, where many of the tributes’ deaths were shot at such speed that they could barely be seen. In a saga set in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian state it’s futile to attempt to sugarcoat content and theme, and ultimately Lawrence’s franker directing is the better approach.
For lighter relief there are, once again, witty lines from TV presenter Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, who’s even more flamboyant than last time), and a very funny moment in which tribute Johanna Mason simultaneously thrills Peeta and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) while infuriating Katniss by stripping in an elevator.
Such is the strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s acting that it’s painful to watch Katniss learn she’ll have to enter another arena and face being the pawn of the Capitol once again. Lawrence is breathtaking from the opening shot, and her performance is at least on par with her Oscar-winning turn in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. Sadly it seems unlikely that the main awarding bodies will recognise a performance in a film pigeonholed as a ‘teen franchise’, though it arguably has a far wider appeal.
Once the tributes are in the arena the visual effects of Catching Fire provide the perfect foil to excessive application of 3D technologies, proving that films can stun aesthetically without employing the latest medium.
The design of this particular arena – it functions like a clock with a danger for each segment and hour – allows for continual action, but as the gamemakers’ threats are often as psychological as they are physical there’s room to do justice to new characters, especially Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), and their relationships to the other tributes.
Throughout the film the romance element threatens to overpower the less well-trodden political content, but thankfully the director only indulges squealing fangirls once or twice. It helps that most of the time Katniss herself doesn’t really know how she feels about either Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or Peeta. The one big kiss comes after she experiences a moment of self-realisation like those in the novels of Jane Austen, or, in film speak, realises she’s been ‘totally clueless’.
There’s really little to criticise, and none of the film’s flaws, such as a tacky closing graphic and unimaginative score, aren’t enough to detract from the overall impact. The conclusion drops just enough hints of what’s to follow in Mockingjay to keep audiences hooked on the story of Panem’s oppressed but irrepressible people.