The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Jennifer Lawrence is allowed to be her Jennifer Lawrenciest self as she fights the power of Panem.
Remember when we used to bemoan the fates of so many young women growing up with Bella from Twilight as a hero? Now we know the same generation has had Katniss Everdeen, and the kids are all right. Plus, those of us well on the 'A' side of 'YA' want in on the flamboyant, ultra-capitalist dystopia and its inadvertent girl revolutionary.
Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is a really developed universe, and the story only gets more compelling with Catching Fire, which in film is a 2 hour 25 minute whirlwind. After the gameplay-based formula of the first instalment, it was hard to figure out where the sequels would go — another fight-to-the-death Battle Royale would be repetitive, but if we don't spend any time in an arena, the premise of the trilogy would look pretty disposable. Suffice to say, Catching Fire has it covered.
After the act of subversion Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) pulled off on live TV at the end of The Hunger Games, agitation is spreading in the poorer districts of Panem, and the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the ruling elite of the Capitol will do anything to quell it. Snow manipulates Katniss into placating the proletariat via a tightly controlled publicity tour — and if she fails, he has a plan B.
Following the strategy of his sly new head gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just bear with the name), Snow calls for a special-occasion Hunger Games, for which all the competing tributes are drawn from past victors. This throws our old favourites — Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) — back together, while also introducing a new field of characters fierce in combat and charisma. Just try not to love matter-of-fact badass Johanna (Jena Malone) and sleazy Finnick (Sam Claflin), an arrogant prepster who nonetheless piggybacks his elderly mentor, Mags (Lynn Cohen), about the place.
It's all on Katniss to survive, again — while protecting Peeta, her family and her distant love Gale (Liam Hemsworth). This time, she also has to slot in her obligations to all of humankind.
Collins' story gives the film excellent bones. The allegories — to reality TV, consumer society and good old fashioned class struggle — sit very near the surface, but that doesn't dull their impact; it's a thrill to see such politics in a dazzling mainstream package. Several key moments of protest are nimbly handled, such that they provoke real empathy and reflection.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and his team have not dropped the ball. There's no Disneyfication; Catching Fire has a distinct look and sustained dark, gritty mood. The Capitol is made to look both glamorous and repulsive, and comedy is inserted with precision; every time Stanley Tucci does a weird laugh, we do a weird laugh, and Malone kills it in the space of an elevator ride.
Of course, The Hunger Games' ultimate weapon is Jennifer Lawrence, and Catching Fire lets her unleash her Jennifer Lawrenciest self, pulling some unpretty faces, cracking a few jokes and being brazenly down-to-earth in the face of Panem-wide 'Girl on Fire' hysteria. We'll follow her into any showdown — including when the final Hunger Games arrives split in two parts, in 2014 and 2015.
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