While more or less than a bridge between the previous film and the next two films to come, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” goes into a more serious territory compared to the first film as its strong, independent, and distinctive heroine finds herself becoming the center of a big movement which may topple her futuristic dystopian society. Whether she likes it or not, she must deal with her another difficult situation, and, as literally shown in the film, more fire is gathering and whirling around her.
Without much explanation for the audiences who have not watched “The Hunger Games”(2012) yet, the movie goes straight to our cool heroine Katniss Everdeen(Jennifer Lawrence). It is a cold winter day several months after her exceptional joint win with her fellow tribute Peeta Mellark(Josh Hutcherson) in the 74th Hunger Game, and, as she tries to focus on her routine hunt in the forest, we see that she is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder along with the survivor’s guilt. Although she did not kill everyone in that deadly game, she killed some of them to survive with Peeta, and she also feels guilty about her failure to protect a little girl from District 11.
At least, her life in District 12, the poorest one among the twelve districts of Panem which have been ruled and oppressed by the Capitol at its center, has been a little better since her victory. She and her family now live in an area relatively comfortable and affluent compared to other poor areas in the district, and Peeta lives right across the street from her house with Haymitch Abernathy(Woody Harrelson), a previous victor who helped them win the game.
She wants to lead a quiet life along with them, but she knows well that it is impossible, for her crucial act for survival at the end of the game has spread the mood of rebellion among the districts. President Snow(Donald Sutherland), an aging sinister man who will do anything to keep his control intact, is certainly not so happy about this, and he has been looking for a chance to eliminate this possible danger inside ‘the girl on fire’ while not further provoking the districts.
The first half of the story is mainly focused on the tension surrounding Katniss and others as she and Peeta go through the customary victor tour with the guidance of Haymitch and Effie Trinket(Elizabeth Banks, who is again having a good fun with the superficiality rivaling that of Marie Antoinette). Katniss and Peeta do an adequate job of looking like a romantic couple in front of many viewers and the flamboyant host Caesar Flickerman(Stanley Tucci with a slick wig and sparklingly shiny teeth), but there are the signs of rebellion everywhere even though she sticks to the procedure for protecting the people she loves and cares about.
Meanwhile, the 75th Hunger Games is approaching, and President Snow, with the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee(Philip Seymour Hoffman) on his side, has a ‘twist’ for not only entertaining his people but also squelching the possible rebellion along with Katniss once for all. In this time, the previous winners during last 24 years will be thrown into the arena, and this will surely not be a pretty picture, considering that how close many of these winners have been to each other as friends or lovers.
As Katniss and Peeta are preparing for their another peril, we get to know a bit about some of their senior winners. Johanna Mason(Jena Malone) is a spunky and blunt woman who has no problem at all with taking off her annoying clothes completely in front of others, and that certainly amuses Peeta and Haymitch(but not Katniss). Beetee(Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress(Amanda Plummer) look nerdy compared to others, but they are the smartest ones who may survive through their intelligence as before, and Beetee has a nice plan to eliminate some of the competitors while temporarily allying himself with others including Katniss.
Based on the adapted screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt(under the pseudonym Michael deBruyn), the director Francis Lawrence made a competent commercial film which moves its story at brisk pace during its long running time(146 minutes). The gray, wintry atmosphere of the first half makes a sharp contrast with the grand production design and gaudy costumes at the Capitol, and the jungle atmosphere inside the arena, which again reminds me of that big dome in Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”(1998), is well established with several deadly threats including poisonous fog and a murderous herd of baboons. This is basically the familiar situation with different kinds of dangers, but the movie keeps its plot rolling with enough amount of suspense although we can easily predict in advance where it is heading to.
While many things in the previous film and this film do not feel that fresh, Katniss is a compelling heroine to remember, and Jennifer Lawrence, who keeps advancing along with her recent Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook”(2012) under her belt, is convincing again as a strong-willed girl who just draws others’ attention by being herself and eventually, and reluctantly, comes to accept her role as a feisty symbol of defiance against the oppressive society. The movie depends a lot on Lawrence’s strong presence, and, as a SF movie strangely more obsessed with fashion design rather than futuristic technology, it boosts her star quality with several nice dresses designed by Cinna(Lenny Kravitz), who certainly gets on President Snow’s nerve thanks to his bold surprise involved with Katniss’s white wedding dress.
Many of the supporting performers in the film reprise their roles, and they are interesting parts of the story as before. While Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones, and Stanley Tucci gleefully go into their respective caricature roles, Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson handle well their more serious parts, and other talented actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer are enjoyable as new additional characters, though I think their roles could have been filled by lesser actors with no problem. Liam Hemsworth, who plays Katniss’ best friend, and Josh Hutcherson get the thankless job of playing two guys who happen to love Katniss, but their relationships with her are at least more thoughtful and mature than the Twilight films; they know that they are facing a problem far bigger than their trivial personal matter, and they are ready to deal with that just like her.
If “The Hunger Games” was a decent start for the franchise with considerable potentials, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a good development to satisfy its fans and other audiences like me. Although the movie does not delve deep into its futuristic setting(I still do not know how every district except District 12 came to have exactly two winners to be thrown to the game), I was sufficiently entertained while not bored, and Lawrence’s performance constantly held my interest. As implied in its cliffhanger finale, we will get two films based on the last book of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, and, whatever we will get, Lawrence and Katniss will not disappoint us at least.