November 21, 2013
It turns out the odds are ever in Francis Lawrence’s favor to create ever more faithful fans with this second installment of The Hunger Games franchise. Lawrence, who directed the lush romantic drama Water for Elephants and the sci-fi thriller I Am Legend, took over the helm from Gary Ross, director of the original 2012 indie studio game-changer.
He proves he has what it takes to wow us. For diehards who already love the books and first film, this will be, dare we say, the Empire Strikes Back of the Hunger Games film series. It is darker, deeper and more intense, but destined to become the favorite. Catching Fire will break box office records, leaving audiences thrilled, moved, sated and excited for more.
Perhaps you’ve been trapped in the black market of District 12 without video. Better remedy that immediately… It is suggested that seeing the first of the franchise just before the second will place you right where you need to be for Catching Fire, which picks up milliseconds after the last film ends.
Pseudo-lovers Katniss and Peeta are being forced to take a whirlwind victory tour after tricking those in charge into letting them win the Hunger Games together. Just before departing, “Catnip”’s bestie Gale plants a statement kiss on her, wordlessly saying his heart goes with her. What’s a heroine to do? Clearly it isn’t to show compassion and inform those in the various Districts they are with them in their daily struggle. That is leading to Mockingjay whistles and raised hands, uprisings, beatings, deaths and extreme displeasure on the part of President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
The powers-that-be devise a solution in the form of The Quarter Quell, a new game that draws from only former victors. After some training that shows off some great special effects, off Katniss and Peeta go, into a new arena with a diverse and quirky collection of killers. They must form alliances to survive, although this time the belief of those in charge is “the only good tribute is a dead tribute.” It isn’t entertainment, it’s extermination.
It is not children killing children anymore. All those taking part have been through this torture once already. As Katniss in particular enters the Games this time, she does so saddled with survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ve seen she has had a hard time keeping herself together, what with the night terrors and hallucinations, and the audience can’t be certain she will prevail.
This is a move that surpasses the first installment of the franchise and in every way. The filmmakers find beautiful ways to balance showing both internal struggles and external sociopolitical conflicts. The characters carry their own emotional truths in every moment, each exposing their inner turmoil in their own ways, in each scene bringing the audience into perfect sync with their anguished desires, little joys and triumphs, and, sometimes, their hopelessness.
No one does both vulnerability, determination and strength better than Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen). It is Oscar-winner Lawrence, whom Donald Sutherland recently called an acting genius, that fans are coming to see. And why not? Her work here is nothing short of spectacular, and she could ably carry the movie on her shoulders alone.
Here, though, she gets new help from actor heavyweights Phillip Seymour Hoffman (gamesman Plutarch Heavensbee) and Goeffrey Wright (former victor Beetee), newcomer Sam Clafiin (lethal golden boy Finnick Odair) as well as a great ensemble of actors returning to their roles, like Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) Liam Hemsworth (Gale), and Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) who get to expand their roles significantly beyond the first film.
Elizabeth Banks in particular takes Effie Trinket to a new place. No more only the vapid chirpy wastrel, she shows herself to be far more complicated and compassionate through a character arc that exposes the audience to the extent of Banks’ talents. She makes purple-lipped Effie compelling and sympathetic even as she struts on her high heels like a trained goat.
In Catching Fire, a number of weighty themes are in evidence. Nature or Authenticity, as in the forests of District 12 or Katniss as she hunts, is juxtaposed against artifice and flamboyance, as in the digitally originated environments and inhabitants of the Game arena, or the glowing teeth and purple eyebrows of Games host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). There is a sense that the deeper meaning is about choosing what is heard deep inside oneself as the right thing to do, versus what one is told is right. All else stands as illusion.
Selfish survival vs. self sacrifice, which is shown in members of uprising districts, in Panem, and inside the Hunger Games, is also a strong theme. Audience members will be moved in unexpected ways by the characters beyond Katniss and Peeta with whom they connect, especially the other tributes during the games. For an action franchise, there are a surprising number of memorable roles, and several times in the film these characters are called upon to choose between saving themselves and risking all for those they love. Sometimes it means death, sometimes survival. Either way, it is heartbreaking.
The filmmakers’ elements consistently come together seamlessly. In Catching Fire, they could have easily phoned in what was needed to squeak by and make truckloads of cash. Instead, all involved chose to go further and make an even more impressive, sophisticated and complex finished product.
Lawrence and his production designer Phillip Messina (Solaris and Traffic) has a way of showing the visually grandiose and the emotionally intimate at once, as shown by the scene with district tributes entering the arena in Panem where it looks like the 1936 Summer Olympic games in Nazi Germany blended with the chariot races in ancient Rome, yet the audience is mesmerized by the mix of fear and defiance on Katniss and Peeta’s faces.
The costumes by Trish Summerville also allow for both flamboyance and simplicity, ranging from Panem fashion and Tribute gowns to the working clothes in the districts. She should and will be considered at awards time, for making such a contribution to this film, and for adding so markedly to the history of modern film costuming.
Lines taken verbatim from the book will ring true to book lovers, and make them more connected to the movie. A wise choice by the screenwriters, given that the original novels were written by Suzanne Collins who started out as a screenwriter herself. Viewers be warned, however, that this story ends in a decidedly abrupt fashion, cliffhanger style. It will leave audiences unsettled, but desperate for the release of the next two movies.
It is a rare thing to maintain equal parts emotional intensity and truth, and exciting action, all in a dark but completely engrossing story. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire achieves this balance, and entertains in the process. From the actors to the production team and everywhere in between, the cast and crew deserve kudos and copious applause.
Watch the accompanying video, which includes a trailer and interviews with Jennifer Lawrence and director Francis Lawrence.