Missing hardly a beat from the conclusion of the first movie, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (played again by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson) are living in the aftermath of their victory in the 74th Hunger Games, the fictional arena sport where teenagers fight for their own survival, for the benefit of their home district, and for the entertainment of the Capital. The second novel in Suzanne Collins’s sci-fi trilogy upped the ante in terms of excitement, plot development, and expanded the scope of the story’s world (much to my delight), and the second movie followed suit. All the familiar characters and actors from the first movie are back, including: Woody Harrelson as drunken advisor Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks as preening chaperone Effie, Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’s semi-boyfriend Gale, Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna, and Donald Sutherland as sinister President Snow. However, a ton of new faces have been added, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as game designer Plutarch Heavensbee, and new tributes (i.e. competitors) Sam Claflin as Finnick, Jena Malone as Johanna, Amanda Plummer as Wiress, and Jeffrey Wright as Beetee. Between the political unrest triggered by Katniss’s defiance of the Capital, the emotional angst of the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle, and the thrilling action of another Hunger Games, I wish that the movie had more length to it. Nevertheless, besides the fact that it began in the middle of things (you’d be better off watching the first movie before this one) and ended with a cliffhanger (Was that really a spoiler? What else would you expect?), Catching Fire did not feel like a second-movie lull. In fact, it had the kind of drive that reminds me of another famous sci-fi middle-movie about rebels fighting an oppressive regime, called The Empire Strikes Back.
When I was reading the book, what hit me the most was the events of the 75th Hunger Games. I was excited by how much more complex the games were this time as the arena was full of traps and the competitors were (spoiler alert) not inexperienced newbies, but all victors from past games. Like any kind of all-star competition, that made the stakes higher and the confrontations more exciting. In a movie, however, as captivated as I was with the arena action, I found that what really grabbed me were the emotional scenes. When Katniss and Peeta had to visit all the districts to speak on behalf of the fallen tributes (people who had tried to kill them, some of whom were killed by them) there was a lot more resonance when it was real live actors portraying the people rather than my own imagination. Of course, the biggest impact came (and I knew that it would) from a scene when they are speaking in the district where Katniss’s fallen ally Rue (a young girl she was very close to and protective of in the previous Hunger Games) was from. Even reading the book, I felt very choked up at that scene (and the events that immediately followed), but seeing it brought to life definitely brought some tears to my eyes (Darn those dusty theatres! Get some HEPA filters already, eh?).
As much as I love the arena stuff, I’m only mildly interested in the political overtones — and this time a lot of focus was given to how poor the districts were, and how officers of the government were brutal and cruel in shutting them down. Not that I don’t love a good story about underprivileged heroes rising up against an oppressive regime, but I always thought that it seemed too grand a story to be laid at the feet of one girl. Yes, I get that she’s an icon of defiance, a regular Joan of Arc, but aren’t there actual politics in this fictional world? How could the president really be focusing so much attention on this pair of teenagers? Similarly, I didn’t care for the love-triangle aspect either (but I guess I’m not the 14-year-old girl that it was meant to target). Katniss is strong and capable, but hardly worthy of the affections of two such substantial young men: Peeta is savvy, kind, and selfless to a fault; Gale is strong-minded, decisive, and full of leadership potential. Seriously, why are they both mooning over trouble-maker Katniss?
After the success of the first film, I’m sure the producers got a much bigger budget together for this film, and it shows. The sets, costumes, everything needed to expand the world of Panem looked amazing. On top of that, the arena itself, with its beaches and jungles, lightning and dangers, all looked very impressive. Unfortunately, we don’t spend as much time in there as we really should (or that I wanted to) because the movie just has to move along with the plot. They also didn’t get to spend much time with Katniss and Peeta being overwhelmed by the excesses and indulgences of the Capital. The audience is on as much of a whirlwind ride as the two of them, but do we really need to be? Also lost in the mix are the other tributes. Finnick and Johanna got a lot of screen time, but we barely got to know Wiress and Beetee, not to mention the enemies like Gloss and Enobaria. It’s funny that I recognized Daniel Bernhardt (a D-list actor who’s kind of like a poor man’s Jean-Claude Van Damme) as one of the competitors, but he was not even given an actual scene! (Perhaps there will be an extended edition with 20% more tributes.)
Ultimately this movie was very enjoyable and well done. If anything is at fault for cramming in too many themes and plot elements, it’s the original source material. Nevertheless, woe to anyone who tries to make these movies by deviating from the books. The novels themselves are very cinematic and make excellent material for adaptation. That’s another thing I like about the movies so far. Stay true to the books, bring them to life on screen, and we will all have a great time. (4.5 out of 5)