The franchise that people love to compare to Battle Royale is back (and yes we do as well so sssh). Now with added Oscar Winning Actresstm.
Following on from the last’s bleak happy ending, the 74th Hunger Games victors, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are continuing their sham relationship under the scrutiny of the public gaze, whilst barely talking to each other behind closed doors.
Fearing an eventual overthrow of government, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his new Games Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) put steps into motion to further water down the impact of Katniss’ actions in the first film; Having unwittingly whipped the great unwashed into a revolutionary frenzy. Katniss must now tow the company line in return for the lives of her family; swapping piss and vinegar for doe eyes and Vaseline-on-the-teeth smiles. When that fails to work, a new Hunger Games is announced with the contestants all being previous winners. Can Katniss and Peeta survive another round up against seasoned pros?
The interesting thing about this chapter in the franchise is how little interest the games present when measured up against what’s going on behind the scenes. And we mean that in the nicest way. Through Peeta and Katniss’ victory tour of the Districts, we’re further exposed to a rich world of the haves and the have-nots. If the first film was about the idea of hope, then Catching Fire – as the title suggests – is about that idea becoming something tangible. Something the downtrodden can aspire to that doesn’t involve millionaire playboys running around dressed up as bats. Something as simple as a three fingered salute in front of your oppressors. There’s a lot to chew on and mull over, which gets lost when the new games eventually start.
When the klaxon screams the start of the slaughter, the film drops the symbolism like a bad habit and we find ourselves yearning to be back at the capital. Yes, there is kind of a key theme regarding people hiding behind a façade, which comes to some sort of payoff in the end, but honestly we like a bit more meat with our gravy.
Thank heavens then for Sutherland and Hoffman. In a stark improvement upon the first film’s glimpses of behind the scenes politics with Game Master Seneca Crane, Catching Fire lets us see the corrupt Sutherland and Hoffman as they buffet on the scenery and put their machinations in order. If this film were set in the 1800s, these co-conspirators would quaff brandy, smoke cigars and stroke their chins decrying the name of Katniss Everdeen.
Speaking of the Girl on Fire, Lawrence brings it all to the table; adding gravitas to a role that others would not. In the wrong hands, a character like Katniss could painted as an all-conquering hero, invincible to all. However, Lawrence brings subtlety that grounds the outlandish scenario unfolding. In her final scene, she manages to tell a whole emotional story without uttering a word. It’s a shame the same couldn’t be said of her onscreen boyfriend played by Liam Hemsworth, who struggles to add any life to his performance. Does he love Katniss or is it just gas? It’s the kind of performance we expect from other franchises, not this one. And not wanting to get too political, it’s always, ALWAYS good to see a strong female lead whose sole preoccupation isn’t who does she love more.
Overall, Catching Fire is solid fantasy which almost suffers the indignity of being the bridge from the first film’s set up and the payoff of the final two. The fact it still succeeds, shows great promise for the next films in the franchise.