Early in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland) reminds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) that the Hunger Games were just a game. Her real fear should be a war that will rain down hell on all of the districts if she continues to be a symbol to the downtrodden. To both its credit and its detriment, Francis Lawrence‘s sequel shares those values. The fear and excitement has left the arena and spread to the streets, and returning to a different arena almost feels safe by comparison. The adaptation is a slight improvement on the book (mostly by avoiding author Suzanne Collins‘ poor prose and stilted dialogue), but also has the same structural weakness of taking the characters to familiar confines albeit with different players and hazards. Nevertheless, the central core of the story remains strong and skillfully eschews the traditional heroine in favor of a scared puppet who can only summon her strength in certain situations. It’s a confined character that can’t take full advantage of its actress’ immense talent, but as the movie reminds us, sometimes sacrifice is necessary for the greater good.
Katniss risked committing suicide to defy the Capitol at the end of the 74th Hunger Games, and her act has triggered rumblings of a rebellion within the twelve districts of Panem. Katniss is too busy coping with PTSD and survivor’s guilt to focus on the unintended reverberations of her actions, but she’s forced to face the consequences when Snow says she must spend her Victory Tour with co-winner/love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) convincing the people that all is well with the world. When Katniss fails in her task and ends up only encouraging the rebellion, she, along with other past winners, are forced back into the 75th Hunger Games, a.k.a. “The Quarter Quell”, which happens every 25 years and has special rules. Snow and new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), hope that when she’s seen killing her fellow tributes, the people will consider her a hypocrite and an enemy of the people rather than their champion. As for Katniss, she just wants to make sure the innocent Peeta survives the fresh hell of the new games.
Francis has left the sad, earthy tones of the first movie behind in favor of a cold, austere world drained of hope. There are only nightmares for Katniss, and the horrors she encounters during the victory tour are far more horrific than the CGI hazards she has to face in the arena. Catching Fire is an incredibly dark and somber film in the guise of an action blockbuster. There’s torture, public executions, and the constant strain on Katniss’ psyche. The proud warrior is almost completely gone, and in her place is someone who desperately wants to protect the people she loves rather than be a revolutionary.
This subversion is one of the strengths of the series, although it comes at the cost of wearing away at Katniss to the point where she almost becomes one-dimensional. Like Bella Swan, Katniss is mostly a reactive character except instead of being swept up in love (although she’s quite comfortable kissing Peeta or her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) depending on who’s the closest set of lips) she’s swept up in political machinations. She’s not the hero; she’s the symbol. The only question is who’s using her—the Capitol or the rebellion? It’s a thoughtful twist, but it can be emotionally unrewarding and increasingly tiresome as we see Katniss tremble and cry a single tear again and again.
A weaker actress would be unable to save the character and probably bring out her most irritating aspects. Thankfully, Lawrence knows how to expertly balance Katniss’ fear, anger, and determination. When it comes to her performance, the final shot of the film says it all. The only downside is she’s still subject to the whims of the plot. Lawrence has to play to the honesty of the character, and if Katniss is shocked at being forced back into the games or scared about Peeta’s safety, then she has to play the tremble/cry card.
Although the character may be at her strongest with a bow-and-arrow, she’s at her best when dealing with other characters, particularly the new additions. Sam Claflin and Jena Malone are delightful as fellow tributes Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason, respectively. Hoffman is also a scene-stealer as he nonchalantly describes to Snow the plan to destroy the public’s image of Katniss. And then there’s Stanley Tucci once again stealing the entire movie as announcer and commentator Caesar Flickerman, who chews the scenery with his gigantic, bleached teeth. He’s a welcome comic relief in a deadly serious drama. Again, Catching Fire may have the appearance of a big, gaudy action movie, but the fireworks between the characters are more exhilarating than anything that happens inside the arena.
Francis Lawrence is capable of directing action, but as Snow said at the outset, “they were games”. The greater reliance on allies and using hazards for the threats makes the second half feel more reluctant. It’s what has to be done to forward the story, but its biggest contribution is in “giving the people what they want”. Katniss is the sacrificial lamb both for the Capitol and for the rebellion, and the arena is meant to satisfy our need for set pieces, but by this point, we don’t need them anymore. We’re not the shallow citizens of the Capitol. The film has firmly established itself as a borderline political-thriller, and the arena’s silly hazards (I won’t spoil them here) don’t have much of a punch.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire loosely reminds me of this year’s BioShock Infinite. They both have interesting, detailed worlds, moderately engaging themes, and a game in the way. The size of the product demands feeding into violent entertainment, but the on-screen violence in Catching Fire doesn’t have the weight of the first movie. This isn’t kids killing kids in the arena; this is a war, and giving us a glimpse at the horrors to come is far more chilling than the trappings of a game.