If there is one theme to take away from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it is the utter demolition of the concept of the happy ending. None of the surviving characters from The Hunger Games has had the happy ending of the first film persist for them, and none can foresee a happy ending to the events portrayed here. In fact, much of the film’s message is based on the idea that happy endings exist simply to make the audience content in the face of real-world horrors. And yet, the film is able to carve out a romantic and idealistic space in its world for these characters, achieving far beyond the simple financial goals of the studio sequel.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) start the film bearing the consequences of their risky solution to the first Hunger Games: they’re stuck in a sham romance, being ferried across a contentious country as propaganda heroes for President Snow (Donald Sutherland). This allows for much of the same sly satire of the media and reality television as in The Hunger Games, mostly delivered by the superb Stanley Tucci as the games’ announcer.
Soon, a new game master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) will conceive of a new Hunger Games pitting surviving winners against each other, but the interesting aspect is that the competition is so short – even shorter than the previous film in the series. In a 146-minute film, director Francis Lawrence (no relation to his star) sets only the last 50 minutes or so in the arena; the remainder is more of a dramatic thriller, as Katniss and Peeta try to swim in the difficult political and media waters stirred up by their newfound fame.
Jennifer Lawrence excels in that part of the film. It’s mostly on her to demonstrate how Katniss is more terrified after her victory than before, and she responds via a performance shot through with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt. She’s fine at the physical, action-hero parts, but skilled stuntmen and trainers can easily make that happen. The Katniss in the quieter parts of the film is the much greater challenge, abrasive and insolent in a way that female characters in blockbuster films rarely are, and Lawrence deserves the accolades for making her feel so real.
She’s supposed to be balanced by Hutcherson, and by Liam Hemsworth as competing love interest Gale, but that does not come off so well. Hemsworth never seems to be making choices as an actor, but it’s hardly his fault, as the role is so small that Gale can only be played one way. Hutcherson’s role is meatier and he interacts well with Lawrence, but he’s completely ineffectual in the games, to the point that Peeta seems to be less a character and more a commentary on the damsel-in-distress spouse found in countless male-dominated action films.
Like seemingly every movie these days, Catching Fire has an ending that can hardly be called an ending. The various messages about politics and the media that dominate the film’s first half are lost in the shuffle admist a major plot twist and subsequent sequel set-up; the next film, Mockingjay, Part I, could easily begin on the same shot this film concludes with. However, it’s easy to tolerate such marketing madness because this film establishes its ideals and emotions early on and never wavers from them. Catching Fire may belong to a four-part string of cash cows, but its heart is solidly in the right place.
— Mark Young