The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare sequel that surpasses the original, making the series feel like a worthy addition to all the great trilogies already out there. Satisfyingly faithful to the book and in turn, exciting and disturbing all at once, the second installment in The Hunger Games trilogy manages to pick up where the terrific first movie left off and run full steam ahead with the larger story.
As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are forced to take part in a celebratory tour of Panem, the Capital is simultaneously quashing any sign of rebellion their victory inspired. While initially agreeing to their roles as obedient and grateful winners, Katniss soon shows sign of rebellion that leads to the beginning of hope in the districts. The Capital’s answer is to host the next Hunger Games from the pool of previous winners, and the punishment is one that reverberates beyond just Katniss and Peeta.
The introduction of some of these previous Games winners, such as Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) are some of the best scenes in the movie. Their anger, resentment, and cockiness are all on display in ways that are both perfectly in character and cleverly misleading. As training begins and alliances are formed, more is revealed not only about the other Hunger Games participants, but also about Katniss, and her relationship with Peeta.
Part of what makes The Hunger Games: Catching Fire so engaging is that things aren’t always straightforward. While the Games themselves – and by extension, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his gamekeeper, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – are a study in deception and manipulation the same can also be said for those forced to play the game. It is Katniss’ inability to truly commit to that level of deception that makes her so appealing, even when Peeta is forced to take up the burden of making sure they appear appropriately contrite or humbled or in love.
One of the best devices for showing the difficulty and balance of keeping up appearances is the Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) show. Tucci revels in Flickerman’s fantastic eccentricities as he presents the Hunger Games participants to the masses. Somehow he’s both completely disarming and smarmy, and he’s an especially brilliant foil for Lawrence’s Katniss. The scenes in which he showcases the various Hunger Games winners are some of the most illuminating the movie, perfectly encapsulated by Johanna Mason’s profanity-laced appearance.
Similar to Flickerman, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) teeters on the edge of being totally ridiculous, yet she’s also startlingly affecting. Her character exhibits perhaps the greatest growth from the first movie to this one. As the reality of the Games and the toll they’ve taken on Katniss and her family finally comes through, Effie attempts to remain cheerful and supportive, but she also understands the weight of what’s being asked of the tributes much more than she did the first tie around. The progression feels natural and Banks does a wonderful job of conveying Effie’s growing discomfort and eventual disgust with the Games.
The arc of The Hunger Games trilogy is filled with tentative steps forward and dangerous steps back, but it’s the hope inspired by Katniss’ rebellion that moves the story ahead with full momentum. While the movie takes its time in showing as much of these shifts as possible, its length is not a detriment. Fans of the books will appreciate how thoughtfully the story has been adapted, while those only interested in the movies will get a fuller portrait of the struggle that’s central to the entire trilogy.
Lawrence continues to play Katniss with complete commitment. She’s strong and vulnerable, but more than that she never wavers in playing the unbelievable events she’s continually thrust into as natural and effortlessly believable. Though Lawrence is at the center, rightfully so, of The Hunger Games movies, they’re made all the better by the excellent supporting cast that commits as fully to the larger-than-life characters of the series. Malone, Hutcherson, Sutherland, Hoffman, Tucci, Banks and others know how to bring to life these book characters in ways that feel real and perfectly in keeping with the over-the-top world they inhabit.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues to build and improve upon its predecessor in smart and engaging ways. The cast is, unsurprisingly, wonderful and the movie strikes an enviable balance between action and the smaller, more intimate moments between characters. In fact, it is precisely that balance that makes the movie a successful translation of the book. It never sacrifices character development for an explosive action moment – of which there are plenty – making those bigger sequences more effective and meaningful in their consequences.
The Blu-ray DVD release includes audio commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, as well as deleted scenes, and “Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire”, a documentary only available on the Blu-ray release. The extras are a fine addition to the set, but the documentary in particular, is excellent. It’s nine parts and covers a great deal of the behind-the-scenes goings on of the movie.