In the film industry, we talk a lot about the doom of the sequel. Thankfully, Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, is like The Two Towers, or as one reviewer put it, The Empire Strikes Back of the series. This is decidedly a good thing. When the first film came out, fans of the book trilogy (written by Suzanne Collins) were generally pleased with the result, but something felt off. With a new director at the helm and a bigger budget for the second go-around, Catching Fire is decidedly the better of the two films.
Set in a dystopian future where “Panem” is split into twelve districts controlled by the Capitol, and the venerable President Snow (Donald Sutherland) reigns with an iron grip. Two children from each district are chosen at random to participate in the Hunger Games, and District Twelve’s recent victors, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home, and prepare to go on a Victor’s Tour. However, things in Panem aren’t as happy-go-lucky as President Snow would have the people believe. Katniss and Peeta’s refusal to kill the other in the first film is seen as an act of rebellion rather than survival, and causes strife within the districts, begging the question of the necessity of the Games in the first place.
As always, Lawrence delivers a convincing and emotional performance. Katniss has grown as a person, just as Lawrence is growing as an actress, and Lawrence does another great job portraying the composure of Katniss, while allowing her vulnerable side to come out. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Haymitch is spot-on just as last time, being the drunken mentor to Katniss and Peeta, who still manages to come through for the pair and offer guidance as necessary. However, the film’s best performance, in my opinion, comes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Plutarch Heavensby, the man who replaced Seneca Crane as head gamemaker. Hoffman is as devious and cocksure as Heavensby, constantly advising President Snow to sit back and enjoy his spectacle, with his ever-devious smile and slicked-back silver hair. You don’t want to miss this performance, to be sure. However, the portrayal of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) left something to be desired. Claflin’s performance seemed if nothing else, mechanical. Odair is a man for whom the audience sympathizes greatly, however, Claflin struggles to be convincing as the outwardly-cocky and inwardly-wounded Finnick.
Acting performances aside, Catching Fire, much like its predecessor, does a fantastic job of bringing to life the characterization of each district. District Twelve is a stark and brutal world of coal miners, made worse by the crackdown of a new head Peacekeeper. District Eleven is a hair better, but only because they’re agricultural workers, as described in the novels. By contrast, the Capitol is an veritable cornucopia of impeccably-coiffured men and women sporting outlandish costumes and multicolored hairstyles. The architecture, too, reflects that of a utopian society with its ultra-modern styling and sharp lines. At a party, Katniss and Peeta are encouraged to vomit after consuming a large amount of food in order to eat more. It draws a stark contrast to the starving people of the districts, and the production design does a great job of showing this sharp contrast.
For fans of the book series, Catching Fire is another faithful representation of Suzanne Collins’ series. For fans who haven’t read the books, but enjoyed The Hunger Games as a film, again, this is a worthy sequel. Like many fans of the series, I’m excited to see what the third film, Mockingjay, will be like, split into two parts as the conclusion of all films-based-on-books have been in recent years. With Harry Potter, it was necessary, Twilight, perhaps. But Mockingjay? I’m not so sure, but I’ll hold my judgment until the film is released. For now, Catching Fire will just have to hold our attention and anticipation until the next release.