If Gary Ross’s Hunger Games was a solid piece of entertainment with a sort of finger-wagging moral streak (Look how bad this is! This society is sooooo corrupt!), Francis Lawrence’s Catching Fire is its older sibling, an honest-to-goodness movie (as opposed to just an adaptation) with a nasty dark side and a sullen but fierce heart.
That heart belongs, reluctantly, to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s been living as normally as she can after winning the 74th Hunger Games with her pretend love, Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson). She’s about to leave on the victory tour, which sends victors around the 12 districts of Panem to make bland speeches and look pretty. The tour is meant to be a tidy, shiny reminder of the Games, and of the power of Panem’s Capital; instead, it becomes the first flicker of a revolution — one that corrupt President Snow (Donald Sutherland, beating one “benign evil” note to death) will use the next Games to quash.
Director Francis Lawrence, whose Constantine is one of my favorite underrated genre films, has a solid grasp on the tricky balance of Suzanne Collins’ story; he and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt understand the ugliness of this divided fictional world in a way the first film only pretended to. Catching Fire brings all its strengths to the fore: Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket has a heartier, more complicated role; Prim (Willow Shields), Katniss’ little sister, shows a glimmer of her sister’s strength; we see just enough of new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to get the sense that he’s playing a bigger game than his bearded predecessor. Most importantly, Lawrence is given free reign to make Katniss surly, prickly, wounded, protective and stubborn — and to show us just how often she has to pretend to be someone else in order to survive. No simple love triangle exists between Katniss, her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta; instead, it’s a knot of loyalty and obligation, safety and strength.
Collins’ Catching Fire was in some ways a rehash of the first book: Snow, seeking to crush Katniss’s power as a symbol of resistance, decrees that for the 75th Games, all participants will be previous victors. So back to the arena Katniss goes, along with a whole host of new characters. The movie, which at two and a half hours is still somehow over too quickly, carefully doles out screen time to those who are relevant: cocky, trident-bearing Finnick (Sam Claflin); tech-heads Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright); and bitter Johanna (Jena Malone), who knows how to make an appearance. Their time in the arena goes by quickly, with less desperation but no less tension than Katniss’ first Games. It all means something different now.
What exactly it means won’t be clear until the third installment, Mockingjay, but Catching Fire sets all the pieces in place: the mockingjay symbol slips by, graffitied on a train tunnel. The so-called Peacekeepers are anything but. Fear and violence spread from the arena into the rest of a restless society; things are black and white and spare in the districts, and colorful and garish, oblivious and ugly, in the Capital (cinematographer Jo Willems, who also shot Hard Candy, shows he knows what to do with color no matter what the scale of a film). Catching Fire gets almost everything right (apart from James Newton Howard’s often too-sentimental score), the costumes and the scale, the textures and the casting, the sense of foreboding and the tiniest sparks of hope. This is how you make a blockbuster. Smart, engrossing, dark and affecting, Catching Fire might actually be better than the book.
— Molly Templeton
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE: Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Cinematography, Jo Willems. Editing, Alan Edward Bell. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Lionsgate, 2013. PG-13. 146 minutes. Four stars.