Release Date: November 21st, 2013 (UK); November 22nd, 2013 (US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
They always say it. It’s almost an unwritten rule in franchise filmmaking. Premature reviewing at its most uninspiring. “The sequel will never beat the original.” Of course I am paraphrasing here and my source is general social cinematic norms rather than cold, hard evidence. But it is certainly true that sequels have a lot to live up to, particularly when they find themselves following on the heels of a successful franchise opener.
Interestingly, even after The Hunger Games delivered thought-provoking sub-plots, new Hollywood superstars and overall cinematic enjoyment in abundance, the onset of Catching Fire has been met with optimism and even more positive hype than its predecessor. Of course there’s pressure, but there hasn’t really been any noticeable apprehension over a potential disaster in regards to the second big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novels.
And why should there be?
Under new leadership, with fresh faces and even fresher faces, Catching Fire forcefully retains all of the progress made by The Hunger Games and elevates the franchise to new heights. The film is weightier, slicker, more intense, and once again boasts a number of glowing performances. Francis Lawrence (no relation) directs an orchestra lead by The Girl on Fire as they collectively strike all of the correct notes, creating a sequel which has its volume up loud as it transmits a clear message of hope and defiance.
A short time after their unprecedented joint-victory in the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are distant with each other and the world around them, and are preparing to embark on a Victory Tour. Still reeling psychologically from her experiences in the games, Katniss finds herself thrown directly under President Snow’s evil spotlight as he strives to quench any potential district-driven rebellion against his autocratic Capitol. The film opens moodily, reflecting the ominous on-edge feeling amongst the district-dwellers that the previous instalment developed so well. Its physical scope travels far and wide with landscapes displaying an icy exterior mirroring that of the mechanical, desensitised hierarchy — an unrelenting mechanism represented at its most negligent by the metal claw disposing of the deceased.
Perceived by the oppressed as a beacon of hope against fear, Katniss and Peeta are subject to re-entry into the Hunger Games tournament, this time alongside fellow victors from the past in a master-plan devised by recently introduced Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his Hunger Games debut as Heavensbee, demonstrating Darth Vader-esque inequalities at times. His deceiving, snake-like delivery is as skin-crawling as it should be. Katniss represents all that is right in a world riddled by wrong, therefore she must be stopped and placing her back into the murderous tournament is Snow’s means of doing so. After all, “Nobody ever wins the Games”.
There is an underlying sense of good versus evil here, but more significantly a battle of hope versus fear. Katniss defines hope, regardless of whether she herself believes it, and having been plagued by fear for seventy-five years, the people of Panem are finally bearing witness to a means of resistance. This notion of defiance plays out in various subconsciously related instances as the film progress; be it through Gale’s encounter with the viscous and ironically-named Peacekeepers, or Cinna’s symbolic garment creations. The actors, writers and director each fulfil their role in successfully creating a dynamic which sees the audience entirely on the side of Katniss, without proceedings ever balling over into a territory of jadedness. Any semblance of an upper-hand gained by the resistance is a triumphant one.
Jennifer Lawrence once again shines as Katniss (sometimes literally) as she steers the bow-wielding heroine through the emotionally wrought rigours, and is quite simply a delight to watch on screen. Her steady evolution from a reluctant and isolated victim of the games to a determined leader is unblemished. Both Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have more to do this time around and Hutcherson’s volunteer scene is perhaps the most poignant of the piece.
Newcomers Jena Malone and Sam Claflin embody the characteristics of past victors Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair to a T, with both the latter’s charm and the former’s abrasiveness in full flow. “Attitude” is the new “mahogany” for Elizabeth Banks’ Effie, who is as flamboyant as before but who also delivers movingly on occasion. An abundance of tension lies beneath the pretension of the Capitol resident — she essentially becomes a token of distinction between the harmless ignorant and pure tyranny, a tyranny of cruelty displayed by Donald Sutherland as President Snow. The ensemble cast deliver performances devoid of weakness, providing Catching Fire and the lead actors a solid backbone to impress from.
A common criticism aimed at The Hunger Games was the extensive use of shaky cam by director Gary Ross, intended to bring a sense of immediacy and danger to proceedings (which, incidentally, it did). Francis Lawrence opts for far less of the bumbling camera work this time around, instead focusing on the contrast between the expansive, free landscapes and capturing the troubled, constrained essence of the Katniss and company. These contrasts diverge further from just the narrative, as melodic instrumentals battle the thumping, grandiose Capitol soundtrack.
Catching Fire is far more encompassing that its predecessor, both visually and thematically, and as a consequence of delving further into the themes of oppression, resistance and trust, it carries more burden that the first instalment. Distressing scenes are almost commonplace in a distressing universe. Francis Lawrence has done exceptionally well in getting a 12A rating for his film here in the UK, and should also be commended for pushing the envelope when it would’ve been far simpler to develop a film containing less weighty elements than those Catching Fire rightly and necessarily displays.
The film is the most anticipated sequel of the year — possibly one of the most anticipated of the last number of years — and it without doubt lives up to its title. The Hunger Games conglomeration certainly is catching fire, and on this evidence who knows when its spark will burn out.