GREAT FILMS: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (USA, 2013)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson

It's always hard to make a sequel that can match the quality of the original film. This is particularly the case in Hollywood franchises, where things are on a very tight turnaround and directors often come and go: the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises each went through four directors, with very different tastes and sensibilities.
The first Hunger Games was one of my favourite films of 2012, and so I greeted the news of Gary Ross' departure with some trepidation. Francis Lawrence's career is hardly glittering by comparison, helming the likes of Constantine and I Am Legend against Ross' Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Fortunately, my fears have been laid to rest by Catching Fire, a very strong and compelling sequel which is just as good, if not slightly better than its predecessor.
If there is one phrase to sum Catching Fire, it is: similar story, higher stakes, better told. There's no denying that the story of this film follows many of the same beats as the first, with the selection of the competitors, training in the Capitol, the Games themselves and the fallout from that. In hands that were less confident in the material, this could have simply been a lazy rehash designed to pad out the action before the events of Mockingjay. Instead it genuinely feels like the first film was little more than an opening skirmish, a Helm's Deep to this film's Pelennor Fields.
While the first film was closely tied to Battle Royale, with its politically-motivated killings of children, the narrative of Catching Fire is much closer to Rollerball (the original version, not the John McTiernan remake). It shares with that film a main character who has become bigger than the game that was built to contain them, with Katniss' charisma and bravery threatening to serve as a catalyst for widespread rebellion. The Capitol's response is to up the ante by means of the Quarter Quell, attempting to destroy Katniss either in body or in reputation, whichever comes first.
Because of the nature of the Quarter Quell, with its recruitment of former champions, there is less emphasis this time on children being killed through brutal gladiatorial combat. But don't be fooled into thinking that these Hunger Games are comparatively tame because of that. Lawrence pulls out all the stops to give us a fantastic thrill ride, with poisonous fog, feral monkeys and artificial lightning. But beyond being impressive from an effects point of view, each of the dangers feels incremental, building towards an emotional climax rather than just running out the clock.
Like the first film, Catching Fire includes references to 1970s and 1980s sci-fi, putting its own visual spin on familiar iconography. The training suits are still akin to the X-Men comics, albeit closer to the recent First Class reboot which also starred Jennifer Lawrence. The Capitol celebrations have a very Soylent Green feel to them, particularly the pro-environmental undercurrents in the excess of the champions' banquet. Elsewhere there are nods to George Lucas' THX 1138 in the designs of the police officers, and to Gladiator in the triumphant entry into the Capitol.
In employing all these references to dark, weighty science fiction, Catching Fire pulls off a neat trick. Although it shows us many of the same events we saw in the first film, such as the flaming costumes of Katniss and Peeta, they seem to have more weight and impact because of the more forbidding mood surrounding them. In the first film the flaming clothes were impressive and enjoyable, a pretty special effect which endears the characters to us. In this film, the same gesture is used to express defiance, with the flashy flames burning Katniss' dress into a symbol of rebellion, not unlike Natalie Portman's transformation in Black Swan.
This brings us on to Katniss Everdeen as a character. The role has made Lawrence a huge star, and she is often held up as the antithesis of Bella Swan in the Twilight series: namely, she is seen as a strong, independent, competent woman who doesn't need to be constantly rescued by men or wishes to be entirely defined by them. That said, some have criticised this depiction of her, complaining that she spends too much time crying and being vulnerable, needing to rely on others in a way that undercuts her essential characteristics.
It's a tempting argument, but it rests on a misconception about what constitutes a 'strong' character. Being 'strong', whether male or female, doesn't mean having no emotions or vulnerabilities: such characters are not strong, they are simply unbelievable. Katniss spends much of the film in stoic defiance of what the Capitol wants, but by allowing her to be more emotional she becomes more rounded as a human being. She retains her independence and intelligence, it's just that the obstacles she faces are getting larger, and no hero is truly that sang froid.
Catching Fire also comes up trumps in the way that it manages the romance element of its storyline. While Gale gets very little screen time in comparison to Peeta, the love triangle between them and Katniss is still present - it simply isn't thrust in our face as if all the action depends upon it. Katniss is still deciding which side she is on, and by extension whom she loves, and there remain doubts about how much of her relationship with Peeta is for show and how much is actually how she feels.
The film continues to make the best of its all-round excellent cast. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific at Katniss, refuting any notions that her Oscar success with Silver Linings Playbook would lead to her feel above the franchise. While she returns to Catching Fire as an established star rather than a promising newcomer, she still has an incredible charisma and naturalism which make you feel like you've discovered her for the first time.
Josh Hutcherson continues to impress as Peeta, being a little more assertive this time around and endearing himself as a result. As for the inhabitants of the Capitol, it's a case of more gradual development, with both Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci playing things a little broader so that their celebrity-friendly masks begin to crack under the strain. Donald Sutherland also gets more to do this time, with his President Snow becoming steadily more ruthless and manipulative as Katniss' influence grows.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a thrilling and worthy follow-up to one of the best blockbusters of 2012. While it is slightly too long and its ending is rather abrupt, it is otherwise very hard to find fault with it, on a visual level, in its character development, its action sequences or its performances. Time will tell whether splitting Mockingjay into two films was a good idea, but for now we have a great sequel to keep us both engaged and entertained.


My WhatCulture! article on Woody Harrelson, chronicling his best and worst performances, can be found here.

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