Film Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Many of the key cast and crew from the smash first installment are back to ensure that this visually thrilling, rapid-fire sequel will match or even surpass the original’s near $700 million b.o. take worldwide.

All signs suggest that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will catch fire, especially as a big-screen attraction. The appealing main characters—both good and evil as originally conceived in Suzanne Collins’ best-sellers—return to their scheming and struggling in the aggressively unattractive post-apocalyptic country of Panem. It’s an agglomeration of impoverished, besieged districts where the Hunger Games competitions provide mass slaughter as mass entertainment for a suffering public. The filmgoing also love it.

Jennifer Lawrence, starring as the strong warrior champ pulled into yet another competition, will bring back the girls. And all the action and violence will bring back the boys. Others will delight in the sheer spectacle of another fight to the death and winking performances from the likes of Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson.
In Panem, it’s horrific government oppression, human suffering, and show biz as usual. Recent Hunger District 12 Games winners Katniss (Lawrence) and friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) embark on a “Victors’ Tour” of the districts to promote the next games and delight the huddled, exploited masses. But as Katniss addresses the crowds, she senses that the public may be on the brink of rebellion, especially after watching their reaction to a government militia man’s coldblooded execution of an innocent protester.

As Katniss is a celebrity, there’s a lot of fuss around her from the likes of sympathetic stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz); effusive, overdressed Effie (Elizabeth Banks), a kind of publicist/event coordinator/producer packed into one outrageous package; boozing trainer/coordinator Haymitch (Woody Harrelson); and larger-than-life (even in matters of death) television game-show host and celebrity worshipper Caesar (Stanley Tucci), a pompadoured jerk of an MC, who whips up excitement and titillating drama of games literally played to death.

Meanwhile, Panem’s evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is already planning the 75th Annual Hunger Games, The Quarter Quell, with game-master Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Both see Katniss and her romantic and rebellious leanings as a threat to their power and the status quo. But it’s Plutarch who suggests that rather than kill her immediately, it’s better to use her for the greater good, which is actually the greater bad that the Capitol perpetuates with its massive and violent oppression of an increasingly restless populace.

Soon, both Katniss and Peeta are sucked into the upcoming Games, as marriage and pregnancy rumors failed to extricate them. After a public lottery drawing and subsequent shuffle of tributes and volunteers determine the participants, both Katniss and Peeta are among them. And although Katniss has shown signs of romantic interests in both Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), only noncommittal kisses and solidified friendships emerge. It’s survival that is uppermost in their minds.

The Quarter Quell sends former winners from the Panem districts to a tropical jungle that sits on a huge lake. Alliances are formed, with Katniss, Peeta, the very smart Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), cocky Finnick (Sam Claflin), and cheeky and rebellious Johanna (Jena Malone) all banding together to survive. Strategies are adjusted once the team realize the importance that the nearby lake holds in their survival.

Catching Fire moves swiftly and the special effects and settings are fresh and dazzling. Suggesting that technology has far overtaken advances in sociopolitical matters, video projections of just about anything no longer require monitors or walls, and virtual targets allow competitors to practice their attack skills.

The film’s sci-fi plot convinces to the point of engagement in what’s going on (and it’s a lot). Helping to signal the evil that has taken hold are the many visual references to Nazi and ancient Roman imagery that have become iconic.

Catching Fire is hitting many IMAX screens and had at least one IMAX presentation for press. The company is taking advantage of such showcasing by spreading word about the scenes that had been specially formatted and enhanced for IMAX and those captured with their “extremely high-resolution cameras.” It’s interesting that the film’s showiness and fun characters practically bury the gruesome premise fueling it. The movie may very well attract beyond the core audience, thanks to its occasional hilarious evocation of celebrity culture and the reality-TV epidemic that, along with the ruling villains, make the Hunger Games possible. Not to detract from what really matters, but there’s a message here too.