by Coop Cooper
A few months have passed since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) survived their Hunger Games ordeal and they are now expected to go on a ‘Victory Tour” as propaganda shills for the oppressive government. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has noticed that Katniss and Peeta have drifted apart and that Katniss has renewed a secret courtship with her childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Snow warns Katniss to maintain the appearance that she and Peeta are in love and to encourage obedience among the citizens. This proves impossible as Katniss has become a symbol of revolution to the more oppressed districts. Her presence only incites uprisings, prompting the government to carry out executions for any minor show of protest. In attempt to humiliate and destroy Katniss, Snow drafts all former Hunger Games winners into a final, deadly battle royale. This time, some of the more dangerous contestants have an agenda other than their own survival.
This sequel successfully builds upon everything that was set up in the first film and has ten times more emotional resonance. In addition to the skillful execution of the twisty plot, characters’ motivations are more complex this time around and guessing their true intentions becomes an active spectator sport, leading up to a cliffhanger of an ending that many are comparing to “The Empire Strikes Back”. It’s a masterful and rare example of a sequel that actually exceeds the original.
The two and a half hour running time allows for plenty of space to further develop the characters – even the minor ones. Characters who had no emotional arcs at all in the first film grow a bit in this one. Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and even President Snow become more important in this film and each gets their weighty moment to show how they handle the tragic events happening around them.
The major characters themselves go through a roller-coaster of heartbreaks, triumphs and surprising reveals. Jennifer Lawrence once again proves why she won an Oscar for Best Actress last year and how easily she has suddenly become an A-list star. She has the magic and she pours it on thick in this film. You can’t take your eyes off of her when she’s on screen. The other leads, Hemsworth and Hutcherson, suffer through the torment with dignity and keep the love triangle alive through and beyond the ending. Their scenes with Lawrence both feel equally genuine.
A couple of new supporting characters keep things fresh and interesting with Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing the new Games-Master, Plutach Heavensbee, who doles out both menace and strategic prowess. Likewise, the characters of Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason (Sam Claflin and Jenna Malone respectively) play veteran tributes who are both frightening and heroic, even when their true motivations are not revealed until the end. Claflin is unfamiliar to me but a welcome addition and Malone, whom I once claimed was the most egregious over-actor of her generation, has finally matured into a confident and intimidating actress.
The final book in the “Hunger Games” series “Mockingjay” is being split into two films (much like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1 & 2) and I can’t say if that’s a good thing. It certainly makes sense to the studio as precedent shows this will probably maximize their profits, but I have heard rumblings that the final book is not as satisfying as the first two and that the series peaked at “Catching Fire.” After this film, I am confident they can pull it off, even if it would fit better in one large film.
“Catching Fire” far exceeded all of my expectations. Every aspect of the original film was improved and even small details seem to hold substantial meaning. Everything paid off nicely, from the twists that kept me guessing until the end, to the deadly game of wits Katniss plays with the President for which she is devastatingly overmatched.
It’s a blockbuster, it is overflowing with heart and it will win many awards in the next few months. This film is worth backtracking to see the original just to get caught up. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars