With I Am Legend and Constantine in his filmography, two not entirely successful features but both ones with impressive sequences here and there, director Francis Lawrence would seem an adequate fit for a populist sci-fi or fantasy franchise instalment. Established fans of either Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels or Gary Ross’ first film adaptation can rest easy regarding Lawrence being given the keys to the remaining films in the series, à la David Yates with the Harry Potter franchise: Catching Fire is a very strong blockbuster, an improvement on its predecessor, and Lawrence’s most consistently effective effort to date.
Part of that improvement comes through Lawrence’s better credentials with action sequences and stylisation, Gary Ross having received a lot of flak from many (though not all) for the look of his Hunger Games effort. In this sequel, the handheld camera is abandoned for a confident though rarely ostentatious brand of steady visual prowess that serves much more memorable shots and scenes, aided by a greater variety of colour palettes and locales. Much of the second half’s arena material was shot on 70mm to accommodate IMAX screenings, and it is here that Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems have their most evocative content in regards to atmosphere; narratively dubious threats like poisonous fog and a clash with vicious primates (mostly) come across more chilling than silly thanks to the execution. The fog would, of course, have been better if it had included pirates, but John Carpenter was sadly not called in to help with this script.
The sequel begins with 74th Hunger Games victors Katniss (a still good Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, the main cast’s weak link here) having to depart District 12 and embark on a victory tour across the nation of Panem. President Snow (Donald Sutherland relishing an expanded role) takes Katniss aside to make her very aware that her loved ones will punished if he is not satisfied with the facade she and Peeta must keep up. Their act of defiance that ensured their double victory in the last games, as well as Katniss’ televised friendship with young District 11 victim Rue, has seen her adopted as a symbol for growing resistance and revolution in the impoverished districts of Panem. Katniss and Peeta must convince the public and president that their defiance was motivated by undying love rather than a refusal to be controlled by the oppressive regime, so as to distract and placate.
The tour does not go according to plan, though, even as the pair, one of whom does not reciprocate the lurking feelings of the other, braves the desperate measure of getting engaged to get the president off their scent. As tensions fail to dissipate, President Snow takes an unexpected measure: the 75th Hunger Games will see past victors, most now adult rather than the usual adolescent contestants, thrown back into the arena to fight to the death. It’s certainly one way to erase the ‘girl on fire’ the capital loves without raising suspicion among the masses, and also to diminish the status of the victors as an upper-class social group who could prove their own influential threat given the chance; said victors, Jena Malone’s sparky and cynical Johanna among them, are understandably pissed off.
With a greater focus on a thoroughly fucked entertainment industry, and on political and media manipulation, Catching Fire breaks the shackles of the ‘Battle Royale with cheese’ tag its predecessor was burdened with, aided by even more adult characters taking centre stage. (Battle Royale happens to be far cheesier than The Hunger Games, but that’s been addressed elsewhere.) Not that there was no substance to Ross’ film, even if some of the world-building wasn’t quite clear enough for those unfamiliar with the books, but the content in Catching Fire feels more substantial even if some of its narrative framework feels like a recycled trajectory.
Once Snow’s plans for the 75th games are announced, the film covers very similar beats to its predecessor for the pre-combat build-up. There are the TV interviews, there’s the training, there’s the performance to have one’s skill set assessed by the Gamemaker; Philip Seymour Hoffman replaces Wes Bentley’s departed
beard character in that role, whose exit at the prior film’s end is memorably described as having been a decision to stop breathing. This material is no less entertaining, but criticism of it as being over-familiar, especially for only the second of four planned films, is certainly apt. Additionally, the flame fashion tangents and just what the meaning behind Lenny Kravitz’s Sinna is supposed to be unfortunately remain a bit mystifying for the non-reader.
Though not a massive detriment, the film’s adherence to certain commonalities with franchise sequels also provides some disappointment. While at this point it is not to be expected that part two could feel like a stand-alone entity, Catching Fire doesn’t really have a conclusion to speak of. Even The Empire Strikes Back, which arguably popularised the cliffhanger trope for sci-fi film sagas, had some sense of progression by film’s end amid the uncertainty and misery. Here, there are a few reveals to add to characters’ confusion and some very bad news, and then the credits come just when Itchy and Scratchy finally reach the fireworks factory. The overall journey and last act are still thrilling, but it’s not nice for any film’s end to remind you of The Matrix Reloaded or Dead Man’s Chest, especially when the upcoming adaptation of the final part of Collins’ trilogy is itself going to be split into two.
— Josh Slater-Williams