The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). With all the fanfare that’s attached to the Hunger Games in Catching Fire and its 2012 predecessor, it’s easy to lose the gravity of what those Games entail, that people are torn from their homes to kill or die in the name of an omnipotent regime that exists to control. When the trumpets sound and the chariots festoon the promenade of this regime’s Capitol, each Tribute is decorated to represent their home, to smile for the camera and exude a confidence that will allow support from faceless sponsors, support that may decide whether or not a Tribute will survive. And the reality is that the audiences of this world are applauding those who die so that they may live, regardless of the manner in which they do so. The grand spectacle of pomp and consequence transcends more effectively here in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire than in Gary Ross’ first installment of the franchise, smoothly taking the viewer in and making snappy, lively entertainment from decidedly grim themes concerning revolution, dissolution, survival, and martyrdom. Heady shit for Young Adult fodder, and where The Hunger Games wore its influences (intentional or otherwise) on its sleeve, Catching Fire takes that torch and carries it farther than the first film ever could. Everything’s bigger here, attributed to the film’s 130 million dollar budget (compared to the more discreet 70 mil for the initial adaptation), a director that is no stranger to dystopia (the schlocky I Am Legend helmer Francis Lawrence takes the reins from Gary Ross), and the very rabid anticipation of this next installment, in what is promising to be a ludicrously lucrative franchise for Lionsgate. Attached to that is Jennifer Lawrence, who – in between Hunger strikes – went and scored herself and Academy Award, lending a presumed prestige to the festivities. (Also here to hedge Liongate’s distinguished bets is Philip Seymore Hoffman.) All together, Catching Fire feels more relevant than what came before, and that is – in itself – a minor aggravation.
There are many starts and stops in the first hour or so: the sequel suffers in its requisite parallelism to its predecessor, an obligatory mirroring that was such a liability to the earlier Harry Potter installments, where each film walked a rigid path: closet under the stairs, train station, Hogwarts, Quiddich, conspiracy… wash, rinse, repeat. Catching Fire has similar hurdles to engage, and there is a feeling at times that this film is more a finessed version of what came before, rather than its own beast. There is a marked confidence in its repetition, although one would certainly hope the studio would get things straightened out the second time around. The action is infinitely smoother, jettisoning the shaky-cam nausea of The Hunger Games and relying on the talents of the actors and stunt coordinators. And even though the Games themselves are the least interesting aspect of this series, these goddamned Games are a stunner: poison fogs, death baboons, birds that sing too familiar a song… everything seems to be a more deadly version of what Katniss Everdeen has survived before. And with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow playing his death wish as cool as you like (he sips tea as the Tributes suffer his machinations), the intrigue of the first half of the film lingers, in what perpetuates into a very real , very involving melodrama that gets the blood simmering just under a boil (until that crackerjack ending, which…).
There’s more hem and haw over the “will they or won’t they” between Katniss and Peeta (a more confident but still clingy Josh Hutcherson), but with Gale (Liam Hemsworth, with much more to do this round) still calling Ms. Everdeen “Catnip” at every adorable opportunity, the triangle itself seems to be building to a reckoning that will come much later. (Possibly in 2015.) And that’s the nagging angst of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. EVERYTHING will happen later: there is an exasperation to the trail The Hunger Games and its sequel have set forth, but when we’re already in repeats – even vastly superior repeats – one has to acknowledge the amount of money, time, and (I’m no saint) talking that has gone into the series. But when director Francis Lawrence is injecting the series with a ferocious energy with more-than welcome newcomers (Sam Clafin, subconsciously auditioning for Aquaman, and Jena Malone, I’m looking at you), and getting nothing but the best from those that remain (Elizabeth Banks balances moxie and regret, Stanley Tucci is a pearly-white firestorm), there is little to do but submit to the monster that is Catching Fire. Simply put: if director Lawrence and actor Lawrence bring as much to the table the next go around (and then the next go around), this will be a journey well worth traveled. The only regret is that we had to pay for the prototype the first time around.