The beginning of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire mirrors the first movie, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting in the remnants of District 13. The winter landscape, though, makes the world even bleaker, and it’s soon clear Katniss is haunted by her experience in the games. Her true love, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is supportive, but he’s also dealing with what happened between her and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutherson) in the arena.
She returns to her home to find President Snow (Donald Sutherland) waiting for her. Snow was a hovering threat in the first movie, but now they’re in direct conflict as Snow tries to quell the nascent rebellion ignited by Katniss’ defiance. She and Peeta are about to depart on a victory tour of the districts with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). Snow threatens her family and Gale if she can’t convince the people – and him – that her actions in the Games were only for love and not rebellion.
The tour doesn’t go well. Throughout the trip they see signs of the rebellion: graffiti of her Mockingjay pin; more that changes the game’s slogan to “The odds are never in our favor”; people in the audience giving her three-fingered salute and whistling Katniss’ haunting whistle, which brings on lethal responses from the authorities. Snow realizes that not just Katniss but all the past victors in the Hunger Games are potential leaders in a rebellion, and he turns to a former game designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for a way to eliminate the threat. The answer Heavensbee provides is a Quarter Quell for the 75th games, where the contestants are all former winners. As the only female winner from District 12, Katniss has to return to the arena.
The Hunger Game franchise, like Star Wars and Harry Potter before it, ls blessed with a strong production team, led by Nina Jacobson and John Kilik. After director Gary Ross departed, they replaced him with Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend). If anything, it’s made the series stronger. The new movie opens up the canvas so the audience see more of the world and the capitol.
The production design, especially the sets and the makeup, have actually improved on the outstanding work in the first movie. There’s a strong echo of Imperial Rome in the movie’s style, more than just the chariots the tributes ride when they’re introduced before the games. The heavily-lined eyes with the women’s makeup and the rows of drummers along the parade route would be instantly familiar to Caesar’s citizens. The buildings, though, are 20th Century Totalitarian. Kudos to Philip Messina for the overall production design as well as to the entire makeup department. Also deserving of recognition is Trish Summerville for the costume design, which ends up being an integral part of the movie’s plot.
The roles of the returning cast have grown. It’s a pleasure to watch Sutherland in full villain mode. Even when Snow interacts with his granddaughter, his ruthlessness is just below the surface. Banks beautifully embodies the shallow Effie as she ventures tentatively into deeper waters, and we see in Willow Shield’s portrayal of Katniss’ sister Primrose some of her older sister’s grit and strength. We also get to know both Gale and Peeta better, and both actors help give reality to Katniss’ dilemma of being denied her first love as well as the real feelings developing for Peeta. Not only Katniss but the whole audience can’t decide between the two.
Several of the former Game winners stand out, in particular Jeffrey Wright as the brilliant Beetee and Sam Claffin as the vain but complicated Finnick, but the one who is stunning is Jenna Malone, who has one of the most memorable entrances in film history as wild-child Johanna Mason.
The movie, though, is carried by Lawrence, who can communicate pages of emotions in a simple glance. The point of Catching Fire is Katniss’ transformation from young, fragile girl to steely leader of the rebellion. In one moment of silence, Lawrence nails it.
The final book “Mockingjay” has been split into two films, as was done with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” The Potter films felt a little bloated – together they ran over 4 ½ hours – and one hopes that this won’t happen in this series. The good news is they’ve brought in Danny Strong to pen the adaptations. Strong won an Emmy for his writing of the HBO movie Game Change, and he also did the screenplay for Lee Daniel’s The Butler, released earlier this year. Another reason to hope is that the producers have already pulled off one of the hardest tricks in the movie business – they made a sequel that is better than the outstanding original.