The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
2013, 146mins, 12
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer (s): Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt, Suzanne Collins (novel)
Cast includes: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin
UK Release Date: 21st November 2013
It’s generally accepted that the Harry Potter franchise came of age with Alfonso Cuaron’s gothic and notably matured third entry “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. The picture boasted a complete and adult sensibility, engaging with characters and the magical world on notes that superseded the candy-floss tonality of the earlier Chris Columbus ventures. Cuaron was able to make the tale his own, combining deft individual touches with Rowling’s celebrated prose to excellent effect, transitioning the cinematic incarnations from toy commercials for their popular literary sources into respectable and unique pop culture creations in their own right. It would appear that “The Hunger Games” cycle has done one better, hitting a confident stride with its first sequel “Catching Fire”. Based on immensely lucrative fiction by Suzanne Collins, last year’s “The Hunger Games” was a box-office success but also a minor artistic disappointment, finding itself imagined through the eyes of Gary Ross, a talented film-maker unsuited for the demands of modern blockbusting. With “Catching Fire” Ross has been replaced by talented visual technician Francis Lawrence (2007’s” I Am Legend”), the new blood providing this entry with a smoother aesthetic, allowing the actors and story to breathe freely.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) remains haunted by her victory at the 74th Hunger Games, unable to shake the event from her psyche as her achievements stimulate active disquiet in the Districts. In a bid to quell rebellion, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) insists Katniss maintain a romantic façade with fellow winner Peeta (a much improved Josh Hutcherson) and make a spate of public appearances, but these events only seem to cement her revolutionary lustre further. Snow and accomplice Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) realise the only way to reinstate the status-quo is by finishing the girl on fire for good, forcing her, Peeta and a selection of other champions to return to the games in honour of their 75th anniversary.
“Catching Fire” gets off to a slow and moody start, the air filled with ice, rain and stinging despondency. Lawrence takes his time establishing the newfound awkwardness between Katniss and Peeta (the latter now fully aware of their hollow bond) and uses his leading lady’s incredible emotive range commendably. Jennifer Lawrence was one of the chief redeeming facets of the initial adaptation - and in the interim period has deservedly scooped academy recognition – her work retaining the same naturalistic glow here. In “Catching Fire” Katniss becomes nothing short of a remarkable heroine, duelling with internal horror, romantic disillusionment and the practical threat of death with courageous dignity, fuelled by Lawrence’s athletic and measured chops. She remains the chief point of triumph for this series, but there’s no denying this time she has a more assured production surrounding her.
In his short Hollywood career Francis Lawrence has proven adept at conceiving worlds, his creations ranging from the desolate New York of “I Am Legend” to the beguiling, ethereal wonderment of a period circus in “Water for Elephants”. His flair in this department provides “Catching Fire” with a firmer grasp of the social commentary gently addressed in part one, the director envisioning squads of faceless government goons enacting feats of grotesque violence and a capital city sickeningly saturated with wealth and privilege. It’s hardly a hyper evolved critique, but at least this time the undercurrents and conscience of the piece are tangibly realised, helping to fill out the spectrum of characters more fully as a consequence. As the sinister Snow, Sutherland is intimidating and awash with villainy, whilst new-comers like Jena Malone’s psychotic competitor and the conflicted Finnick (Sam Claflin) help instil the games themselves with added personality. Of course it all comes back to Katniss though, the competent dystopia presented helping to develop personal concerns and enhance her standing as a noble, sturdy lead upon whom to prop the narrative.
Lawrence has definitely benefited from a higher budget, allowing the games to become more interactive and the CGI to undergo an upgrade. “Catching Fire” still suffers from an overcooked runtime, with some of the action in the middle third failing to overcome vanilla conception (a set-piece with monkeys feels especially uninspired), but it finds an energized groove come the finale, leaving things on a cliff-hanger of substantive potential. Only time will tell if “The Hunger Games” has the firepower to transcend its box-office credibility on a more meaningful level, but this sequel is certainly an encouraging step in that direction. There’s a bit of Azkaban in this one.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013