Katniss is back and she’s not happy about it. The second installment of The Hunger Games series, Catching Fire, picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in her rural District 12, but she’s a changed woman. She’s suffering from post-traumatic stress with seeing visions and having nightmares of her times trying to survive in the games, but there’s no time to deal with that. She’s about to commence the Victory Tour, which will have her and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) touring the different districts giving inspiring speeches, but also keeping the residents in their oppressed place.
The themes of dealing with celebrity, the government trying to control the people, and rebellion were the strongest aspects of the first film, and they are back again in the first act and it’s fascinating. It’s really strong material watching Katniss find her way in her public figure role, and the people in power (Donald Sutherland as President Snow, new addition Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new gamemaster) trying to pull the strings. It’s something very unique to watch.
President Snow then announces the Quarter Quell, which will send all the previous winners back into the Hunger Games, for an all-star edition of the reality show. Think Survivor: All-Stars, except they kill each other. The second act of Katniss and Peeta re-training for the games, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) giving them advice, and going on Caesar Flickerman’s (Stanley Tucci) talk show is where the film stalls. It all has an aspect of “been there, done that”. It is interesting that the all-stars are of all ages (like Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lynn Cohen) and not just teens this time, but it all feels a repeat of the original film. This section really could have been cut down. Tucci injects a lot of energy into the talk show scenes, but there’s just far too many. I kept thinking “ok, move it along”.
Once the games finally get underway, the film feels rejuvenated again. This is a very different games for round 2. Katniss is pretty much never alone and it’s not as much of a battle against each other this time around, but more a battle against the elements put in place by the programmers like poison fog, tidal waves, rotating islands, angry baboons, and lightning. It all leads to a shocking conclusion that sets up the final chapter of the series (which will split into 2).
Jennifer Lawrence works wonders again in this role. It’s amazing how charismatic she manages to be even when she has to be so stoic all the time. She’s got even better performances around her for the sequel. Hutcherson feels more mature in his role as Peeta, and thankfully this time around, the film doesn’t go into corny romantic scenes. In the first one, some of the late scenes between Peeta and Katniss had the audience I saw it with burst into laughter. Liam Hemsworth doesn’t get much to do here again, but he continues to be a strong presence and has great chemistry with Lawrence. Here’s hoping he’s more involved in the next one.
Elizabeth Banks‘ eccentric Effie Trinket is allowed to be more grounded, while Sam Claflin (as Finnick Odair) and a scene-stealing Jena Malone (as Johanna) prove to be great additions to the cast. You won’t be forgetting Malone’s first scene in the film anytime soon.
This is a fascinating blockbuster that tackles some big themes successfully. The middle section drags with repetitive material, but from the setup of the cliffhanger ending, I doubt that’s going to be an issue in the next one. Bring on Julianne Moore!