As faithful as Argos or Old Yeller, Snowy or Hachiko, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire runs no risk of disappointing its absolutely ravenous target audience. Serving up everything from Suzanne Collins‘ eventful second installment in her trilogy about teenage warrior and rebel Katniss Everdeen that fans could possibly want to see, this is a safe, serviceable, carefully crafted action drama in which the subversive seeds planted in the first story take welcome root. As before, Jennifer Lawrence is the superb center of it all and the massive success of this Lionsgate release is as certain as the turning of the Earth.
At this point, the franchise’s clout is likely mightier than it was 20 months ago, when the first film grossed $152.5 million in its opening weekend, then good for third place on the all-time list. Lawrence’s cache is now greater, the production values are notably better thanks to a $130 million-plus budget, up from $78 million for the original, and more than 50 million copies of the book are now in print in the U.S. There is also considerable room for improvement in overseas box office, as the first film generated only 41 percent of its $691.2 million global haul from foreign territories.
Although Catching Fire had a rushed and tumultuous preproduction period due to the departure of original director Gary Ross and a quick search for a new one that settled on Francis Lawrence (no relation to the star), the film shows no signs of haste. The script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn reflects the shape, emphasis and incident of the book with almost scientific precision, and the desire to deliver the expected goods is keenly felt. Some key personnel have returned — production designer Philip Messina and composer James Newton Howard, in particular — while others, including costume designer Trish Summerville and cinematographer Jo Willems — are new. Across the board, the new film boasts a noticeably spiffier, more confident feel than the first, even as the overriding impression is one of methodical responsibility to the source material.
The root of the conflict here is betrayal, while the story’s underlying drive is subversion, a strong dramatic combination. With Katniss safely back at home in District 12, her biggest problem would seem to be figuring out what to do with obvious match Gale (Liam Hemsworth) in light of her official romance with her Hunger Games co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). A surprise visit from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) makes plain his own insistence that she play ball, not only in maintaining the fictional love story but in satisfying his own suspicions of her loyalty to him and the Capitol. It’s clear that he’d use the slightest excuse to have her eliminated.
Instead, he develops a different ploy. After a traditional Victors’ Tour through all of Panem’s districts, which reveals that public discontent could easily break out into revolution against Snow’s fascistic control, it’s announced that the 75th anniversary of the Capitol’s ultimate victory — the third Quarter Quell — will trigger a new set of games to be played exclusively by former winners, one man and one woman from each district. Many of these victors are old friends, not to mention national heroes. In the case of District 12, it means that Katniss will be pitted against either Peeta or their old mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). It’s Peeta that volunteers.
“Last year was child’s play,” Haymitch warns his proteges, who need to sort out how they feel about one another as well as who, between them, should survive or die if it comes down to that. Katniss is fatalistic about it, convinced as she is that President Snow will never allow her to live, while others, for that very reason, argue that she must never give in as she’s the face and instigation of the growing rebellion.
Although dominated by gray, wintery skies and the cold wind of totalitarian oppression, the first 80 minutes of exposition and build-up are packed with incident, ranging from Robocop-like soldiers assaulting or killing civilians over insubordinate acts big and small to the former victors’ rides on a luxury train all over the country, their adornment for many television and public appearances (Lawrence gets innumerable costume and makeup changes), a grand entrance on chariots into the Capitol that would have pleased Nero himself, and a training period in which the contestants test and display their skills. These interludes also provide for the returns of such actors from the original as Elizabeth Banks as the style maven and den mother Effie Trinket, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ designer Cinna and, most amusingly, Stanley Tucci as the purple-eyebrowed, ivory-toothed and irrepressibly sycophantic TV host Caesar Flickerman.
A more equivocal new character turns up in the person of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s Plutarch Heavensbee, the freshly appointed chief gamemaker who will be overseeing an event that’s inspiring an increasingly queasy feeling in the public, given how beloved many of the former winners are and their unhappiness at being forced to participate. Given that the modern gladiators may be reluctant to kill one another and that some expedient alliances take shape (presumably to target hotshot newcomers like Katniss and Peeta), Plutarch is obliged to create an environment for the games that’s unprecedented in its treacherousness.
Rather paradoxically, it’s here that Catching Fire falls a bit short of its predecessor in an almost subliminal way. In the first installment, wary young warriors were forced to live by their wits and hunt one another in repeated do-or-die, mano a mano situations. Here, the unenthusiastic veterans are subjected to manufactured hazards — invisible force fields, a rolling fog of poison gas, enraged fanged monkeys, attack birds, a spinning rock island to which some have retreated — that have the cumulative feel of a designed theme park attraction rather than a confrontation with nature.
The climax, centered on some stunning shots of a dazed Katniss and game-changing last-second revelations, neatly whet the appetite for the finale, Mockingjay (to be divided, not surprisingly, into two films directed by Lawrence, the first of which will be released next November).
Although less of her screen time is devoted to outdoor action than was the case the first time around, Lawrence further solidifies her tenacious grip on this signature role as she explores Katniss’ tortured inner self. Hutcherson comes into his own more confidently than before, while Hemsworth, left behind in District 12, has less to do.
Sutherland adroitly ups the odiousness of the tyrannical national leader, while some of the newcomers cut particularly strong figures, notably Hoffman has the hard-to-read wizard of hazards, Jeffrey Wright as a brilliant tech geek, Jena Malone as a kick-ass former winner and, most arrestingly of all, Sam Claflin as a madly charming, handsome and self-possessed contestant who won the games when he was just 14 and effortlessly attaches himself to Team Katniss.
Technical and craft contributions mark a step up from the original. At an Imax screening, the aspect ratio changed during the games sequences, although this will presumably not occur at normal presentations.
Production: Color Force, Lionsgate
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn, based on the novel “Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Suzanne Collins, Louise Rosner-Meyer, Joe Drake, Allison Shearmur
Director of photography: Jo Willems
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Editor: Alan Edward Bell
Music: James Newton Howard
Visual effects supervisor: Janek Sirrs
Rated PG-13, 146 minutes