‘Catching Fire’ More Interesting Than First Film


The second installment of the Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, has many of the same elements as the first, but is far more politically sophisticated and more adult-oriented. Yes, there is still a gladiator-style match. And Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are back fighting for their lives along with a few interesting allies. But the economic dominance of the capital of Panem (Latin for bread as in “bread and circuses”) over the rest of a very angry, resentful population is now shown to be close to the boiling point.

The movie begins with Katniss and childhood love Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting in her beloved District 12 forest just before she has to be featured on a nationwide propaganda run. We see how broken up she is because of guilt over the other tributes she killed in the last contest. But she goes through the sham. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), seeing the favorable response to her as a symbol of defiance, decides to put on a special version of the Hunger Games, one in which the winners of previous games all must compete. At the end, there would only be one left, and he insists to game organizer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that Katniss not be that survivor.

The new contestants, all of whom were previous winners, know they’re being used, and we get to see a few of their attempts to get the games stopped, most subtle, although Johanna (Jena Malone), an ax-wielding virago, is the most amusing. Katniss, however, combines elements. She wears a wedding dress on television, presumably the one she would have worn in her announced upcoming marriage to Peeta, and after receiving a lot of admiration for it, whirls around while it (as designed) catches fire and turns into a stunning mockingjay costume. The bird is the symbol of Katniss that the people have been rallying around.

The battle begins, and Katniss and Peeta join up with Finnick (Sam Claflin), his elderly mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), and a few others in a game that is far more difficult than the previous one. Plutarch has designed environmental elements, including force fields, poison fog and wild baboons to destroy the participants. And then come unexpected (unless you’ve read the books) twists and turns. The movie leaves off at a particularly interesting spot, leaving the audience almost pleading for the next installment, due out next year.

The cast is generally good. The problem with both Hutcherson and Hemsworth is that they are both a bit charismatically challenged. While girls in the audience obviously chose sides in terms of which hero they preferred for Katniss, Claflin came across as far more interesting. I liked Malone in her few scenes; she certainly held her own along with the stars. Woody Harrelson, reprising his role of Haymitch, was great as Katniss’ mentor, while Elizabeth Banks, almost ridiculous as Effie Trinket in the first movie, managed to become a more nuanced person in this film. Those playing the media (Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones) were wildly over the top, hilarious although quite recognizable as types.

But the two most important characters, Snow and Everdeen, were played superbly. Sutherland was terrific as the evil President Snow, always urbane, occasionally actually nice, but as casually cruel as any tyrant. He was always willing to sacrifice people for what he considered necessary for his own political survival. But, as before, it is Lawrence who carries the movie. She is stoic and purposed while never forgetting, or letting us forget, that strife leads to casualties, and that losing people, even opponents, still hurts. She is quickly entering the top tier of American actresses.

This is a very political movie, one that should not be judged on a left-wing/right-wing bias. Perhaps George Orwell might provide a perfect description of a society ruled by a small number of rich people who live to excess in a rich capital city, while pushing the rest of the citizenry down into poverty and using a corrupt media to manipulate them. After all, is there a country really like that?

This is a very good, although not great, film. It transcends the typical B-movie genre through good acting, as well as the overriding back story of rebellion against tyranny. This is a fun film in many ways that manages to always stress its humanity. There is plenty of violence, but death is not treated casually. It is very worth seeing.