There are friends of mine for whom this movie was the most anticipated film of the year – even more than Man of Steel, which I found incomprehensible. But it turned out…they were right! At least insofar as this was a better movie than the Superman reboot, or at least, less disappointing.
Catching Fire is pretty much the film you’d expect it to be, especially based on the trailers. Katniss Evedeen is still reeling from actually surviving the Hunger Games in the previous movie, and struggles to find some way to have a normal relationship with Gale, while dealing with her ambiguous connection with fellow victor Peeta Mellark. It becomes increasingly obvious that her hopes to return to anything like normal are doomed as she and Peeta tour the various districts and encounter growing signs of discontent, and evil President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) puts the pressure on her to be an establishment hero. Things take a dark but predictable turn when Snow decides the way to crush the hopes that Katniss represents is to get her back into the games along with all the other previous victors and get them to kill each other off.
The Games themselves are of course the centrepiece of the movie but are also the least interesting parts for me. The contenders are s a bit older and more diverse than they were the last time around, but basically the same stuff happens: Katniss sneaks around the woods making friends and trying to avoid the crazies who are out to kill her. Somehow, even though she and Peeta are the first couple to have ever won the Games, there are quite a few “pairs” amongst the participants – a brother and a sister psycho, two brainiacs, two masters of disguise, etc. In addition to these threats, Katniss and her friends must also deal with killer baboons, killer birds, and killer fog (we’ve seen action movie heroes outrun water and nuclear explosions before, but this is the first time that I’ve seen them running from the air). It’s all nerve-wracking but sort of typical.
Fortunately, it turns out that playing the Games is not what the story is fully about. Unfortunately, when it gets around to revealing this, the movie ends, Empire Strikes Back-style (also, Matrix: Reloaded-style. And Back to the Future, part II-style). There’s a lot of promise in that ending, but also a lot that is unexplained and that happens off-screen – things like what was the rebel’s plan exactly? Were they intending Katniss to shoot her arrow at the sky? If not, than how were they so prepared to come swooping in to pick her up just at that moment? And what happened in District 12? How did Gale get out at all? Was he in on it? Etc.? But of course the movie ends, leaving us to wonder if these points are going to be explored in the forthcoming installments, or if they’ll end up as storytelling weaknesses.
For me the most interesting things about the first Hunger Games were the hints and glimpses we got of the broader world that all of this takes place in – what is this nightmarish society that would give rise and perpetuate something so brutal and vicious as the Hunger Games? With the whole tour, there is a bit more of that this time around, but I find that with more exposure comes more disbelief about it all. There are fires, mini-riots, beatings, public executions, etc seemingly everywhere. How can anyone, no matter how despotic, expect something like this to last? The film’s world is less subtle, and more cartoonish, and thus less compelling, which is a pity.
A good chunk of the cast returns from the first film, led by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. The main addition is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who once again proves his ability to play creepy and gross and the new games master. The director is now Francis Lawrence, who lenses the whole thing with a lot less shaky cam than his predecessor, which is a plus. Overall, the sequel has everything one would expect and does a good job setting up the next installments in the series.