With any great success in Hollywood comes great anticipation and expectations for a follow-up. It’s a challenge that director Francis Lawrence meets with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which boldly builds on the world first seen in Gary Ross’ 2012 film. Constructing dark and complex themes and introducing dynamic new characters and stars, it's a satisfying and dramatic new adventure in the now-blockbuster franchise.
Picking up only a short time after the end of the last film, the sequel begins as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) venture through the 12 districts on a the Victory Tour, “celebrating” their win in the 74th annual Hunger Games. This is bad news for President Snow (Donald Sutherland), however, as the two young champions have managed to spark ideas of revolution in the country of Panem. Scheming for a way to permanently take the faces of the rebellion out of the picture, it’s announced that the 75th annual Hunger Games – a special event known as the Quarter Quell – will put previous champions back into the arena.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire deliberately mirrors its predecessor, from the opening scene with Katniss and Gale hunting in the woods to the march towards the Hunger Games, wonderfully and horrifically reflects how the world of Panem has changed since Katniss and Peeta’s victory in the arena. It lures you into feeling comfortable with familiar scenarios, situations and characters, but then freely pulls a switch that changes everything.
Differentiating the film from some of its YA-spawned brethren, the movie also continues to develop one of the most interesting action movie female protagonists we’ve seen in a long time. Not only does Lawrence fully embody Katniss and completely melt into her performance, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s script keeps her on an engaging path and continues to flesh her out as a three-dimensional character – warts and all. Yes, Katniss is strong-willed, brave and tough, but she is also bullheaded, impulsive, and basically socially retarded. She is a hero – but a grounded and real one that audiences can really cheer for.
The character’s relationships with both Peeta and Gale move forward in a major way too, but the film avoids all the trappings of on-screen teenage romance by using both men to show a deep fracture in Katniss’ psychology post-Hunger Games. Suffering from clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Katniss completely rejects Peeta and embraces Gale after her return home--- as the former is forever tied in her mind to the most horrific event in her young life. But when it comes time to return to the arena she reaches for Peeta, who was with her inside and helped her survive. Unfortunately this dynamic really only reflects on Katniss, as Peeta and Gale once again remain rather underdeveloped, but the film ultimately executes its message and is stronger for it.
More than just building on what was established in the first movie, Catching Fire has plenty new to offer and it’s impressive just how much of it the film actually pulls off. Going back to the Games, Katniss and Peeta are introduced to a whole new class of tributes played by some wonderful performers – from Jeffrey Wright to Amanda Plummer to Jena Malone. The unexpected and surprisingly excellent standout amongst the group is Sam Claflin, who infuses the slippery Finnick with an excellent blend of charm and slyness; the audience may continually debate whether the story’s heroes should trust him or chop his head off with an axe.
Another outstanding new addition is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Head Gamemaker replacing the dearly departed Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) from the first movie. The Oscar winner is utilized perfectly, not just because he’s a good fit for the character, but just because of the sheer amount of gravitas he brings to the table. You hang on every word watching Hoffman’s Plutarch and Sutherland’s President Snow quietly and confidently discuss the need to quell all whispers of uprising in Panem.
Without giving anything away, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does suffer from a severe case of what I’m going to call “Part Two Syndrome,” as the movie comes to a sharp and abrupt end that makes the story feel incomplete and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Still, the sequel solidifies what was already a solid trajectory for the franchise, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes from here.