We have ourselves a bona fide science-fiction movie series, people.
I liked The Hunger Games quite a bit – it made my 2012 top-ten list – but it was hard to tell if the initial adaptation of the Suzanne Collins book series was simply a fluke. Add the fact that the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, brought in a new director (Francis Lawrence) and new screenwriters (Simony Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) and who knew what we were going to get?
Turns out, pretty much what we got before: a well-crafted and superbly acted sci-fi dystopia that resonates with much of what’s happening in our current age and will likely resonate well into the future.
Catching Fire finds teen heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back home in District 12 after surviving a sadistic, gladiator-style contest against other youth put on annually by her totalitarian government. Having won the game in a non-traditional way – she and fellow District 12 contestant Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) outwitted the game-makers so that both would survive – Katniss has become something of a rebel figure for the people of the more downtrodden districts.
Not that it’s a role she’s eager to embrace. One of the wonderful things about both films is the way they ground the political machinations within the psychology of a complex character. (In Lawrence, they also have an actress capable of pulling this off.) Katniss may be a wild card, but so far she’s a reluctant revolutionary – a girl more concerned with keeping her mother and sister safe than in leading any sort of rebellion. And so she agrees to join Peeta on a “parade of champions” tour, even if the whole charade disgusts her.
Catching Fire engages serious themes with a fairly light touch.
Lawrence especially shines when she lets that disgust burst out. While visiting one of the other districts, where Katniss and Peeta are forced to offer eulogies for the community’s fallen children, she inadvertently incites the crowd by offering a genuinely anguished remembrance. She’s not doing it out of strategy, but from the heart – which of course makes her all the more compelling as a rallying figure.
Like its predecessor, Catching Fire engages serious themes with a fairly light touch. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a recurring thread, first in regards to Katniss’ guilt over her actions in the games and later when she meets other shell-shocked “victors” on the champions’ tour. The flouting of gender expectations continues to be a hallmark, both in the costuming (there’s a great wedding-dress moment) and in the handling of the love triangle among Katniss, Peeta and her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Few sci-fi action films feature this many men so frequently wounded and in need of a woman’s protection.
There are amusing moments too, thanks mainly to the cleverly cast supporting players. Stanley Tucci’s teeth return to play excruciatingly ingratiating Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman, while Philip Seymour Hoffman joins the series as the new mastermind behind the games. Among the former victors we meet are Jena Malone, as an uber Katniss of sorts with an axe and anger issues, and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer, scurrying about as vets who won not by force, but brain power. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has both – it’s a galvanizing action movie with loads of sci-fi smarts.