Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Premise: A sequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games. The events of the previous film have sparked uprisings among the lower classes. In an effort to destroy the icons of the rebellion, the warriors in the next bout of games are culled from the survivors, forcing Katnis Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to once again engage in mortal combat.
What Works: The great sequels, such as The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight, revisit and revise the original idea, escalate the conflict, and expand the story palette. While Catching Fire is not quite at the level of those examples it is a successful sequel. The movie returns to the world of The Hunger Games, in which the land is divided into districts from which two people are drafted each year to participate in televised gladiatorial games. The scenario is familiar from a lot of other movies such as The Running Man and Battle Royale but the original Hunger Games was distinguished by a very interesting social structure around the games. Typically in these kinds of movies the vulgar crowd absent-mindedly tunes into the festivities and everyone but the main character participates in a horrific system of exploitation with no sting of conscience. The filmmakers of Catching Fire are less cynical than that and although many plot beats and scenarios of the original film are repeated here they are done with more subtlety and greater intelligence. Catching Fire escalates the conflict of the original Hunger Games; where the first film was simply about whether or not Katnis would survive, this film connects her survival to the liberation of the masses. She has become a political figure, a status that Katniss did not expect nor does she have much interest in. The tension between Katniss’ public persona and her private life and her realization that her choices have broader significance raises the stakes of the story and gives the action new and more interesting dimensions. The filmmakers of Catching Fire also expand the production values of the sequel. Some of the special effects in the previous movie were uneven, especially in the large scale sequences in the capital, but Catching Fire has a much more polished look. The games are also bigger and deadlier and include some interesting supporting characters, especially Johanna Mason played by Jenna Malone. Katniss and Peeta are forced to make alliances with other contenders and the filmmakers smartly play on the ambiguity of everyone’s allegiances.
What Doesn’t: The middle portion of Catching Fire repeats a lot of the set pieces and critical plot beats of the first film. When Katnis and Peeta are redrafted into the games the picture goes through a lot of the same scenarios, as these characters train for battle while working the celebrity circuit. The filmmakers smartly imbue these familiar sequences with a new and more interesting subtext but it is all the same nevertheless. One weakness of the original Hunger Games that is magnified in Catching Fire is the love triangle. Katniss is publicly betrothed to Peeta but in secret she carries on her love affair with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The relationship between Katnis and Peeta makes very little headway and the Katnis-and-Gale angle of the love story has no romantic heat. There isn’t much more to their relationship than whispers and stolen glances and because there is nothing to substantiate their love this aspect of the story lacks tension. Although the forces working around the love triangle make it more interesting than a similar scenario in the Twilight series, this is Catching Fire’s least compelling subplot. The filmmakers also struggle with the ending of the picture. A lot happens in a short period of time, and most of it is explained through dialogue by the surviving characters. The finale includes a major twist which comes across as tagged on. The filmmakers do not properly set up the reversal and so the payoff is more confusing than it is surprising.
Bottom Line: Catching Fire matches and in many ways exceeds its predecessor. Although a lot of moments in the Hunger Games sequel are familiar both from the first film and from this genre in general, it does those conventions much better than a lot of other pictures.
Episode: #468 (December 8, 2013)