Entertaining, Complex ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

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Average: 5 (8 votes)
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Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Second acts to incredibly popular and entertaining mainstream fare can be a tough prospect. For every “The Dark Knight,” there are too many films like “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” – works that essentially just repeat what audiences fell in love with instead of trying to expand on the world of their predecessors. And so “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” hits theaters this week with an amazing amount of anticipation but a good degree of trepidation as well. Can new director Francis Lawrence not just offer a repeat but a worthy follow-up? Will the legions of fans of Katniss and Peeta be satisfied? Absolutely.

“Catching Fire” is a thematically complex and artistically refined piece of work. I must admit to not being familiar with the source material and so much of my response to the quality of “Catching Fire” can probably be attributed to how impressed I am with the way that Suzanne Collins took her initial concept and really developed it in her follow-up. The narrative of “Catching Fire,” adapted by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, is fascinating in the way it dissects propaganda, governmental control, and the seeds of rebellion. And it’s marvelously entertaining as well, even if the producers of this one could have trimmed some of the massive running time (146 minutes) down to make it even tighter. In terms of pure story, “Catching Fire” is what a sequel should be – a development of themes from the first movie instead of mere repetition.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Photo credit: Lionsgate

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are beloved icons, as are all victors of The Hunger Games. They have a special story though in that the world believes them to be victorious through the power of their love. They were willing to sacrifice themselves and it is their love that made them dual winners of the games. However, they’re not actually in love. Well, at least she’s not, as the film opens with her kissing beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth). It wouldn’t be a hit Young Adult novel without a love triangle.

The nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) recognizes the PR nightmare of a Katniss not betrothed to Peeta. If the increasingly rebellious people of his country see Katniss as an icon of revolution in the way she essentially broke the rules of her time in the Games then she could lead them to a coup. Snow tries to spin the image of Katniss & Peeta, sending them on a victory tour, forcing them to fake their love for the cameras and trying to turn Katniss from an icon of the little people to one who has forgotten where she came from. Of course, it doesn’t work and it appears drastic action will be required to stop anarchy in Snow’s districts.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Photo credit: Lionsgate

Another great performance from Lawrence drives the film but she’s ably assisted by an incredible supporting cast. Hutcherson seems even more grounded and mature here than in the first film but it’s the development of characters played by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland and introduction of new characters that really gives this film more narrative weight than the first. It also helps to have a great roster of familiar faces in those new roles, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new Games architect Plutarch Heavensbee, Jeffrey Wright & Amanda Plummer as a pair of brainy Games victors, Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, and Jena Malone as tough victor Johanna Mason. There’s not a weak player in the cast.

If “Catching Fire” has a flaw it’s that the cinematic storytelling could have been significantly tightened, especially in the first act. Lawrence and his writers spend a lot of time on set-up, underlining the issue of the love triangle and the role of Katniss & Peeta in propaganda longer than they need to do so. Viewers will feel the length and presume that it’s because the final act goes on too long but I think it’s actually more that the film takes too long to really get going, repeating themes too often in its first hour. I think there’s a truly spectacular 120-minute version of this film buried in the 146-minute one that’s being released.

It’s a minor complaint for an excellent piece of mainstream filmmaking that reminds one, especially after a year of horrendous blockbuster disappointments, that sequels can still have the power to surprise you. One shouldn’t be surprised at all that Lawrence is, once again, spectacular (she seems incapable of delivering an unengaging performance), but “Catching Fire” has unexpected joys around every corner. From Hutcherson’s increased maturity to the fantastic exchanges between Hoffman & Sutherland to the newcomers like Claflin to the thematic density of the piece overall – I was constantly engaged and surprised by “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” I wish it happened more often.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was adapted from the book by Suzanne Collins by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn and directed by Francis Lawrence. It opens on Friday, November 22, 2013 and is rated PG-13.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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