With Harry Potter and Twilight come and gone, we now are living in the Hunger Games era of best-selling books turned into blockbuster movies. I think we should consider that a mercy, given that the chilling 50 Shades of Grey era is right around the corner.
Unfortunately, The Hunger Games didn’t exactly debut with a splash in its first movie installment. It was smart to cast Jennifer Lawrence before she was the most beloved “it” girl in Hollywood, and now it’s locked her into three more films, including a two-parter finale.
The first film suffered because Miss Lawrence wasn’t given very much to do. The film went through the motions of the book, but lacking Katniss’s ever-present internal monologue, she felt like a very flat character. The world of Panem was vaguely interesting, but static, and the film was overall adequate, but not terribly gripping.
Thankfully, nearly all of this has changed for the follow-up, Catching Fire. Lawrence is given much more of a personality as Katniss, and the rest of the subcharacters are all more rounded out as well. The film begins with the seeds of a nation-wide uprising being planted in the districts, and ends with a new games organized by the evil President Snow, who means to kill off the remaining Hunger Games champions lest they be considered symbols of hope by the general public. This is true of Katniss especially, and her famed Mockingjay pin has turned into an icon for the slowly building resistance movement.
The most impressive section of the film is the build-up to this eventual uprising among the public. Snow is actually a terrifying villain this time around, visiting Katniss in person to threaten her family if she doesn’t stop stirring up trouble. There are some truly heartbreaking scenes in the districts as the authoritarian cops execute instigators inspired by Katniss. We have to watch her live with the consequences of her defiance, which eventually includes her best friend/boyfriend Gail being whipped to near-death in the town square.
From the dirt poor higher numbered districts to the ancient Rome inspired Capitol, Panem feels a lot more alive and vibrant than in the first film, and the class disparity is on full display. All of this is great set-up for the final two films where the games give way to outright war.
Still the best character in these movies. You go Tucci.
But for now, in Catching Fire, we do still have games. The “Third Quarter Quell” shoves nearly all living winners back into the arena for what should be a tense fight to the death. But really, this time around, the combatants spend more time fighting built-in arena hazards than each other, including poison smog and vicious baboons. Not to say this isn’t intense, but it’s far less so than the first games where the central focus was on the horrifying idea of children brutally murdering each other. Though there’s some infighting among the victors, Katniss is permanently surrounded by a pretty large escort of friendly competitors, which eliminates much of the tension found in the previous games.
The film is far and away better than its predecessor in nearly every way but the games themselves. But even still, there are parts in the jungle that are suitably terrifying, and the entire event serves as a solid lead-up to the final two films. It ends with one of the better second movie cliffhangers out there, and I have a feeling the series will only continue to snowball into bigger and bigger box office receipts with its next two installments.
I’m glad to see they’ve figured out how to translate much of the excitement and tragedy and personality from the books onscreen, something that was missing in the first attempt. Job well done to all those involved, and hopefully things will improve even further from here.
4 out of 5 stars