Hollywood is nothing if not consistent. Every year, fans and pundits alike can predict with stunning accuracy which films are going to be up for the biggest awards, certain actors will inevitably type-cast into identical roles time after time, and most notably, if it’s popular, look for a sequel. Even more-so, if it’s a popular book series aimed at young adults or in the fantasy genre, look for an entire series commitment and endless marketing dollars to be thrown behind it. That, obviously, brings us to this year’s surprisingly fast sequel to 2012’s insanely popular The Hunger Games in Catching Fire.
The Hunger games is the very definition of a pop culture phenomenon. For most movie goers, the first film came out of nowhere and really surprised them with it’s popularity and legions of dedicated fans. I admit to never having heard of the Suzanne Collins novels prior to their cinematic adaptation, and have still yet to read them. However, I can say that I truly enjoyed the blend of post apocalyptic drama and fantasy action that came from The Hunger Games, and knowing that it was a trilogy in the making, I grew even more excited.
Now, with the release of the follow-up, The Hunger Games has reached the level of a successful franchise, rather than just a successful movie, and that’s a significant distinction. The first film has it’s flaws, it has it’s detractors, but overall was very well received by fans, and raked in more than $400 million, for a debut film, that’s a hell of a feat. To put it into perspective, that’s more money than The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Nolan’s Batman, Iron Man, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean and Twilight all made with their debut efforts. It’s near unprecedented success, and I have to say that it deserves it.
Thankfully, this isn’t the only good news to come from this review. Catching Fire is better than the original in nearly every aspect. It’s one of the more complete films this year, and that’s not with the prerequisite of it being a fantasy film, in general, it’s one of the most complete films. The acting is (mostly) strong, the set pieces are as great as ever, the story is engaging and enthralling and the action is thrilling.
After Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark became the first pairing to ever win the infamous Hunger Games, the world has been thrown into a level of chaos and unrest. Now back in their dilapidated District 12 home, the on-screen couple have worked hard to forget what they were put through a year ago, and are ready to return to normalcy after the commencement of the most recent games is meant to signal the end to their fame. However, thank to the bold act of defiance shown by the couple at the end of the games, the entire nation seems to be on the brink of revolution, and emotions are at a boiling point.
Which is where the ever-brilliant Donald Sutherland comes in. His President Snow is instantly as charming and intimidating as he was when last we saw him, and with a more direct approach, we learn just how far he is willing to go to protect his precious capital city and their way of life. With more than a few direct and indirect threats, it becomes clear that our heroine Katniss isn’t going to be up for some easy retirement as she had believed.
The entire cast plays well together, specifically star Jennifer Lawrence, who seems to have a natural chemistry with everyone she shares screen-time with. The interaction with President Snow shows off how well she can work with seasoned veterans like Sutherland and Woody Harrelson (who’s Haymitch is as entertaining as ever), but it’s really her character’s connection with Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta that sells this entire world. The two play off of each other well, showing the entire spectrum of emotions as they weave their public lie of a romance and their home life, filled with turmoil as Peeta’s true-life feelings of love toward Katniss appear to be unrequited.
It is, however, their great chemistry that one of the few flaws of Catching Fire shows it’s face. While an undeniably small role, I feel like Liam Hemsworth who plays the actual love interest of Katniss, Gale, was outshone by Hutcherson, and his role felt entirely unnecessary and boring. One of the things I enjoyed so much about the first film was that fans of the novels promised that this story was not the love triangle we have become so accustomed to in recent years, with the unrivaled success of the Twilight series of films. We weren’t supposed to be put through another Team Jacob or Team Edward situation, and to see this story be dragged out for all it’s worth left me a bit underwhelmed.
However, that pretty much ends where my criticism would feel necessary. The rest of the film is simply great. There is plenty of drama and story set-up, which one would expect from a middle-film of an epic series, while still offering a level of familiarity and an enhanced sense of danger for the heroes. Philip Seymour Hoffman adds yet another incredible actor to the fray as he joins as the new head gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee; a nasty, plotting man who is helping President Snow devise the end to this upstart revolution.
The dedication to plot is very much appreciated in Catching Fire, as the first nearly hour of the film takes place before the beginning of the Hunger Games, and really sets up the struggle between the common man and the new dictatorial leaders of the nation. By the time we see Katniss and Peeta finally end up back in the arena, we have a deeper understanding of the dangers that face them, as well as who these characters are as people. It really helps to connect with them when their lives are put in mortal danger, and adds tension to every uneasy alliance formed.
Everything about Catching Fire seems to be more sophisticated than the first film, probably owing to a change in directors, from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, who helmed two of my favorite films of the past ten years, the criminally underrated Constantine and I Am Legend. He has helped to bring a renewed sense of realism to this series, and it’s great to see he is back for the final two installments, due out beginning next year.
While I still find the decision to end this trilogy of books in the now over-used two-part finale Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, I guess being a big fan of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy and the final two Harry Potter films means I can’t pick and choose when I like this method. I remain optimistic that Mockingjay can continue the steep increase in quality seen from the first film to it’s sequel, and we luckily won’t have to wait long to find out.