The second installment of the Hunger Games mega franchise traded out both its director and writers from its inconsistent but promising predecessor. This could have been a warning sign; making the move to shake up a creative team partway through a franchise is a risky move, but it turns out the director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and writers Simon Beaufoy (a bunch of Danny Boyle films) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) have us in excellent hands. Catching Fire manages to improve on its first installment in every conceivable way.
The continuing saga of The Hunger Games opens with survivors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) attempting to cope with their new lives post-Hunger Games. Some see them as tools of the government to help keep down the more combustible fringes of society. Others consider them just the spark needed to set those fringes ablaze. The totalitarian President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pushes back against the tide with naked force, installing storm troopers (“Peacekeepers”) throughout the districts and acting with public violence any time even a whiff of uprising is in the air. Snow’s main event is to change the rules of the 75th Hunger Games, turning it into an All-Star game of sorts by restricting the contestant pool to only previous winners, thus forcing Katniss (the only female winner from her district) back into the arena for another round likely to end in her death.
The tone is quite different the second time around; it’s clear to essentially everyone in the know that the rules change of the Quarter Quell (silly names with a vague sense of doom are abundant in this universe) is a ploy to permanently deal with the Katniss problem using the most public tool possible, thus cutting the revolution off at its head. As an aside, his idea is not entirely logical, as what amounts to a public execution of a martyr figure would likely spur the revolution on, but they do address this and I am comfortable with megalomaniacal dictators making short-sighted decisions from time to time. He brings in a new gamemaker by the name of Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to raise the stakes. Hoffman replacing Wes Bentley’s perfectly curated beard (there’s also something about someone naming Plutarch replacing someone named Seneca that I can’t quite put my finger on) is certainly a step in the right direction, but the film benefits just as much from the rule change to the Games, as it allows them to drop some established actors into the arena alongside the young ones. Having seasoned veterans like Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Jena Malone in the mix is a boon for Lawrence, Hutcherson and Sam Claflin once the Games start in earnest, providing a calming influence to the audience that also ensures the actors stay within the mood they should be in.
Catching Fire continues to benefit from the excellent casting choices of the first film; in addition to Sutherland, the work of Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci is another highlight. These two represent the pinnacle of the excesses of the elite who populate the Capitol, all crazy outfits and gravity-defying hair and teeth visible from space. Their enthusiasm and cloying love for an institution built on child murder was so infuriating in The Hunger Games, but it’s slowly eroding away here. Even before the announcement of the rules change, you can see the way their eyes are a bit duller, their slight hesitations belying their outward boisterousness. It’s masterful acting, reinforcing the concept that this whole dystopia teeters on a razor’s edge because one girl couldn’t stand to kill her friend. No one believes in the lies anymore, and the tension is palpable throughout the first half, even beyond the storm troopers and the public whippings. The best action films are often ones that can most effectively convey chaos, and this film manages to successfully do so both in and out of the arena. These are the traits needed to make the world believable, and when you can do that, when you can make the audience really tune in, the stakes elevate naturally without having to resort to cliché or gimmick. The atmosphere does the work for you, and that’s exactly what happens here.
The second half of the film is predominately the titular 75th Hunger Games, and the combination of participants who have been through it before and a devilish new arena with plenty of tricks up its sleeve that feels almost like a character in itself. It’s a fresh experience, which is a shrewd move. Had the second version just dropped some new people into the same environment as the first, all of that momentum from the first 80 minutes would have been lost. Instead, the film deftly shifts gears and ratchets up the horror as Katniss struggles to survive and save as many friends as possible. Lawrence continues to excel in a role that requires so much ambivalence, juggling her survival instinct with an almost maternal need to protect those around her while a third of the world considers her a hero, another third a revolutionary, and yet another an enemy of the state. Hutcherson’s Peeta is strong here as well, dealing with his own pressures from a sense of honor and chivalry; the gender roles involved are not entirely what you (or Peeta himself) would expect, and he feels the need to challenge that and push for his own agency, whether this is actually a good idea or not.
Jena Malone’s brash Johanna (she needs to be in more movies that I want to see; I’ve loved her work for a while now) and Sam Claflin’s Finnick also assert themselves well during the Games, and the dialogue and plotting do a wonderful job of hinting that there might be something else, something bigger going on under the surface without hitting the foreshadowing too hard. The film does end somewhat abruptly, but this is a cliffhanger in the grand tradition of The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (not all created equal, though they have similarly unresolved endings) and offers such an incendiary climax (literally and figuratively) that you don’t leave the theater feeling hoodwinked or unfulfilled.
After the disaster of a year we’ve had in the big budget spectacle realm, from Oz: The Great and Powerful and Jack the Giant Slayer through Man of Steel and Pacific Rim, nearly every major release with a 100+ million dollar budget has been either dreadful or disappointing. Even the decent ones, like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World aren’t really good movies, all noticeably flawed in some way. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels like a titanic achievement because it’s actually good all the way through, excellent even, and I had nearly forgotten that was possible. It’s a great popcorn flick that doesn’t insult its audience’s intelligence, while offering up just enough intrigue to keep the mind engaged and stretch for something more. Topping it off with a strong cast, excellent acting, competent direction, a lush visual palette and a good sense of scale, Catching Fire is the spectacle film of the year.