Going darker for a sequel is almost a cliché now. Almost every sequel these days follows the Empire Strikes Back formula, and more often than not succeeds. It’s hard to imagine the sequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games being darker than the franchise starter, pitting children against each other in a fight to the death as it did, but Catching Fire goes deeper and darker and as such emerges as a better film as a result.
Fresh from winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself once more thrust into the world of the games being trotted out, along with fellow victor, Peeta, for the victory tour of the Districts. Yet due to her defiance in the games she has become a symbol of a rebellion in the world of Panem and there is talk of an uprising against the Capitol and the fascist President Snow. Sensing a problem, Snow hatches a devious plan to rid himself of the Mockingjay figurehead.
Before the first film came out there were a few murmurings of Team Peeta and Team Gale factions, no doubt trying to capture the attention of the same fans of another film adapted from a Young Adult novel series. And although there are very very slight similarities, watching Catching Fire couldn’t be further away from the sparkly vampires and werewolves of that other franchise. Catching Fire is as intelligent as it is exciting; chock full of social commentary with a believable heroine and genuine emotion amongst the carnage. It’s billed as a Young Adult novel and the film is rated 12A but there are very major themes contained within the film that you wouldn’t normally associate with a teen friendly franchise: government oppression, freedom of speech, 1%ers, poverty, all wrapped up in a blockbuster façade. What other film aimed at children would contain a (frankly horrifying) public execution? Its brutal adult stuff and all the better for it. In fact the preamble to the Games themselves is arguably the best part of the film (it’s certainly the most interesting); which is not to say that once we’re in the arena things take a turn for the worst. It’s just as thrilling, if not more so, than last time with a jungle arena filled with forcefields, poison fog, blood rain and rabid monkeys which once again pushes the boundaries of what you can do in a 12A rated film.
But all this would be for naught if your lead actress weren’t up to scratch. Fortunately this film has Jennifer Lawrence, and she is nothing short of fantastic. It’s a no-nonsense character and Lawrence’s performance is neither showy nor grandstanding. So strong is her performance in fact that the other major characters pale in comparison; Josh Hutcherson is still wooden as Peeta, and Liam Hemsworth once again barely registers as Gale. Yet perhaps that is the point; this isn’t a film about a love triangle, but even still the performances are slightly lacking. Newcomers this time (aside from the other tributes played by non-famous people, who may as well be labelled Cannon Fodder) include Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair and Jena Malone’s Johanna, both of whom are a lot of fun and add a dash of humour to the increasingly dour proceedings. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also joins the cast, wearing normal clothes unlike everyone else in the film, and adds a smarmy charm as head Gamemaker. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks also return and are just as great as before, with Banks’ Effie getting a particularly emotional scene that’s totally unexpected and pitched perfectly.
And while, yes, it does follow almost exactly the same beats as the first film, it’s a much more confident and assured outing that unburdened with having to set up the world of the film expands it’s own universe beautifully, and sets up the next two films (the third book, Mockingjay, is being split into two parts) neatly with an absolute belter of a cliffhanger. Like I said…Empire Strikes Back.
Bigger, better and, er…hungrier(?), Catching Fire is everything a good sequel should be, anchored by an excellent central performance.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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