The first “Hunger Games” film was a pleasant surprise for me. I was expecting it to be another movie set to please a young female audience in an attempt to capitalize on the financial success of “Twilight.” However, about 10 minutes into the movie, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of course, with later viewings I noticed a few problems, but I still enjoy the first film for what it was. Still, the shaky cam, forced chemistry between Katniss and Peeta, and important scenes from the book being left out hurt the film. Nevertheless, it was made clear that these movies weren’t going to be dumbed down teen heartthrob material, which raised my expectations.
“Catching Fire” takes place right after the events of the first book with Katniss still struggling to cope with the events of the Hunger Games and often having nightmares over them. After she was able to rescue herself and Peeta, despite the rules stating that there could only be one victor, she is forced by the Capitol to fake an actual relationship with Peeta to simmer down the fire sparked in the districts from Katniss’s actions. Once President Snow realizes that the districts aren’t buying into the relationship, he enlists Game master Plutarch to attempt to resume the Capitol’s dominance, which involves the demise of Katniss.
The entire cast performs admirably and their performances give this film its soul. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is incredible. However, Lawrence is given even more to work with since Katniss’s character faces a lot more turmoil and shows a lot more emotion both mentally and physically.
In the first movie, I was disappointed with Josh Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta, simply because the chemistry between him and Lawrence felt forced. Of course, in the book, they are faking their love for each other even in the first film, but there is supposed to be a layer of ambiguity that Katniss faces that makes her wonder whether or not she really loves Peeta. Safe to say, Hutcherson’s performance is a massive improvement and there were a number of scenes in the film where I really felt for their relationship, even in their sappiest moments.
Other standouts include Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch, Sam Claflin who plays the cocky Finnick, and Jena Malone, who plays the wild and crazy Johanna Mason. I was skeptical when Francis Lawrence (Director of “I Am Legend” and “Constantine”) was asked to replace director Gary Ross. However, he did a great job and executed the action sequences to perfection unlike his predecessor. There were even some surprisingly great artistic shots he took that I wasn’t expecting to see in a blockbuster film of this caliber.
Another great aspect of the film was the tone. This sequel is comparable to films like “The Empire Strikes Back” or “The Dark Knight” in that this movie is a lot darker than its predecessor. The dark tone is kept throughout, even during the seldom-comical moments. There are some scenes in this movie, that I would truly describe as shocking. The subtle details are what really give the viewer an emotional connection to each of the characters.
The biggest strength of these movies are not the actual games, but the scenes before, which convey the Capitol and the entire concept of gaining support to survive. We saw a bunch of teenagers forced to grow up both physically to fight and mentally to please the blood hungry crowds in the first Hunger Games.
In “Catching Fire,” we see a lot more in the first half than just the concept of surviving in a death match and totalitarian government; we see a victor drowning in guilt, forced to seem overjoyed so everything she stands for isn’t destroyed right before her eyes. It is that stress and horror built by the extraordinary Lawrence that makes this film far more than just a holiday blockbuster.