Note: There are a few spoilers from the first “Hunger Games” film in this review, so if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so before watching “Catching Fire”.
Last year’s “The Hunger Games”, which was based on the first novel in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, was bound to be a huge hit – not just because of the hordes of teens and young adults flocking to the theaters to see Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson fleshing out their new favorite fantasy characters on-screen, but because it was, for the most part, a pretty good movie. And though it was only moderately stimulating to this critic, it was, at the very least, a solid foreshadowing of its three planned successors – the first of which, “Catching Fire” (which hits theaters tomorrow), is a far more mature, violent, complex, and interesting movie.
The autocratic dystopia of Panem is not a great place for the majority of its citizens. As established in the first film, a controlling entity called the Capitol has mandated an annual bloodletting – a televised, commercially sponsored event in which one unlucky teenage boy and girl are selected from each of its twelve industrial districts in a lottery known as “The Reaping”. They are then expected to fight to the death until only one person remains.
When Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) emerge from the 74th Hunger Games as the first ever surviving couple, having threatened to kill themselves in front of the entire country on live television and appearing to be deeply in love, it is seen as an act of defiance by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). However, to avoid a rebellion, he’s forced to let them both live, all the while knowing that the Romeo and Juliet act was only a ploy to keep themselves alive.
“Catching Fire” picks up during a virtual PR nightmare in the wake of the games as Katniss and Peeta, now a beacon of hope for their mostly destitute countrymen as well as a threat to the infrastructure of the Capitol, are on the “post game” tour as all the tributes are expected to do, beginning a new life with the promise of fame, riches and non-stop media attention. Along for the ride are fellow games veteran, mentor and heavy drinker Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss’s faithful stylist and confidant Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and the effervescent Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).
But things are far from well and good as their happiness is a ruse, and President Snow, who’s essentially running damage control through his aristocratic channels, threatens to kill Katniss’s younger sister Prim (Willow Shields), mom (Paula Malcomson) and close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) if she isn’t cooperative during the media frenzy. Basically, she’s to smile and nod for the cameras and publicly show her respects for the generosity of the Capitol.
When the victory tour goes afoul after a heartfelt speech from Katniss creates an uproar in one of the districts, a massive revolt seems imminent. As a countermeasure, Snow re-inserts Katniss and Peeta into the running for the 75th, and biggest ever, Hunger Games, in which only seasoned victors – the most dangerous fighters from all twelve districts – are eligible. This is where the story really reaches a new level of excitement, as the hazards created by newly appointed game master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), which are set in a massive bio-dome where the third “Quarter Quell” is to take place, are essentially non-stop. As several new characters are introduced, including an aging techie named Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and a cocky but gifted fighter named Finnick (Sam Clafin), and alliances are formed, the film becomes a totally immersive action/fantasy experience.
“Catching Fire” is like the “Empire Strikes Back” of the “Hunger Games” series. Director Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”) gives us something smarter, edgier and far less predictable than the original film, and the script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt leaves us with a terrific cliffhanger. This film also shows a massive evolution of both its concept and its characters – a combination that is kind of rare with these contemporary multi-part epics. Lawrence, as always, is a blast to watch, and Hutcherson’s Peeta grows leaps and bounds from the first film. Not only are the action sequences more extensive and creative, but the pacing of this installment – which runs a good 2 hours and 20 minutes – is almost perfect. It’s a taut, extremely sure-footed adventure story that defines what movie-going is all about. “The Hunger Games” has unexepectedly become a series that I’m seriously invested in.