Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.
The Hunger Games saga has been born into a world in which it is near guaranteed box office success. Riding on the back of the successes of other teen fiction such as the Twilight series and the Harry Potter series, it would have been easy for Hollywood to have been complacent in the production of this series. It was a surprise then that The Hunger Games turned out to be a decent film. It is an even bigger surprise that it’s successor surpasses the original. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one best blockbusters of the year, and sets a strong foundation for a (two part) finale.
As it begins it seems as though Catching Fire is taking a completely different narrative path to that of it’s predecessor, moving away from the premise of the Hunger Games completely. Following Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as they tour the districts of Panem after their victory in the Hunger Games, the narrative takes the world and the concept at the heart of it in a fresh an interesting direction. Because Catching Fire doesn’t have to do so much world building as the original, the first half flows much better, and is more dramatically engaging than that of The Hunger Games, which rather sags on repeated viewings.
As Catching Fire moves into its second half however, it becomes clear that it will be retreading old ground. When Katniss and Peeta are dragged back into the Hunger Games, there is a sense of dread. It is easy to question where they can take it so as to not just repeat the first. Luckily the film manages to find room. While the preparations for the games sometimes revisit old ground, these scenes are at least an excuse to revisit Stanley Tucci’s brilliant and hilarious performance as television personality Caeser Flickerman. The games themselves on the other hand completely change the formula. Where the first games are simply about surviving, the games in Catching Fire are more a reflection of the world outside, making for more twists and intrigue than before.
The film is also helped along by a maturing cast. Jennifer Lawrence is starting to show her talent elsewhere, and her development as an actress really tells here. She brings a depth to Katniss that wasn’t present in the first. She is a conflicted character, who is caught between her own wants, and the responsibilities that have been thrust upon her. To a lesser degree Josh Hutcherson has shown some development too. Being (like his characters disguises) all but wooden in the original, there was a lot of room for improvement. While he is far from perfect, he puts in a competent performance here.
In terms of its central villain, the film is in safe hands. Donald Sutherland turns in a horribly calm depiction of President Snow. He makes for a good object of animosity for the audience. However, he is far from a unique villain, and Sutherland doesn’t bring anything to the role that will leave a lasting mark. The real lasting mark is made by a relatively unknown actor. Patrick St. Esprit plays Romulus Thread, a peacekeeper in Katniss’ home district. Despite his relatively short appearance and having relatively little to work with, his appearance does leave a lasting impression. The over-aggressive military commander is hardly a new concept, yet the aplomb with which St Esprit throws himself into the role leads to one of the most believable and scary incarnations of what is by now a rote archetype. It is only a shame that he did not have more screen time.
Catching Fire follows in the steps of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars franchises in creating a sequel that surpasses the original. Much of this is thanks to having an already established world with which to play with. The series is now starting to pick up some momentum heading towards its finale. It will be interesting to see whether Mocking Jay follows Lord of the Rings’ trajectory, and makes for the best in the series, or whether it follows Star Wars, and deteriorates. Even more worryingly, with the final instalment now being divided in two, it may follow in the steps of Breaking Dawn. Let’s hope not.