What’s next after you survive a televised fight to the death against 22 other children used as pawns to instill fear unto the populace for generations? For Katniss Everdeen and her fellow Hunger Games District 12 co-winner, Peeta Mellark, the answer is you play the game forever…unless rebellion takes hold.
In Catching Fire, the much-anticipated second installment of Suzanne Collin’s dystopian The Hunger Games series, Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy) and the rest of the original film’s cast return to reveal the haunting repercussions of being “winners” in the annual blood bath orchestrated by silken-voiced tyrant, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) stepped into the directorial driver’s seat vacated by Gary Ross and has accomplished the increasingly rare feat of improving upon the original. Sure, it helps that the $400 million earned by the first installment gave Lawrence a much bigger budget to play with for richer visual effects and production design. But outside of his masterful work in the aesthetics, Francis improves the series by fleshing out the characters (many of whom were underserviced in the first film), clarifying for the audience the emotional toll of the games across Panem, and by making the stakes Katniss and company are up against in the Quarter Quell arena more potent.
The sequel picks up months after the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss is still wracked with guilt for the murders she committed in the arena in order to survive, and that manifests as PTSD-induced visions of her victims and vivid nightmares. She and her beloved sister, Prim (Willow Shields), along with their mother now live in comparative opulence in the gated Victor’s Village, near drunken mentor Haymitch (Harrelson) and her estranged partner, Peeta. Katniss doesn’t fit into her old life anymore, as she’s out of sorts with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her long-time friend and hunting partner, who doesn’t understand what she went through and wants her to stand up against the tyranny. At the same time, she’s distanced herself from Peeta, who is the personification of the games and a reminder of the broken heart she inflicted on him when their showmance ended. But she can’t hide anymore when President Snow arrives to let her know that her little stunt has sparked an actual rebellion in the Districts and she needs to turn on the charm and “love” for Peeta so the insurgence can be contained. A false performance earns death for her sister, Gale, Peeta and anyone else she cares about.
Katniss and Peeta are whisked away on the obligatory Victor’s Tour to visit each of Panem’s 12 Districts where they’ll face the families and hometowns of the children that died around them. Escorted by the ever garishly, over-the-top Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and sullen Haymitch, the duo witness the violent efforts of Snow’s Peacekeepers to staunch any insurrection which gives them an authentic bond and galvanizes them against Snow’s demands. Upset that Panem’s citizens (and even his granddaughter) look up to Katniss, Snow ups the ante by announcing that a male and female victor from every District will return for the 75th anniversary games, or Quarter Quell, which puts Katniss and Peeta back into a new arena fighting other veterans for their lives.
With the introduction of the Quell, we get a new roster of characters that take the kid-killing out of the equation but add more gravitas as we see the damage the games have wrought on each survivor. Sam Claflin, as charmer Finnick Odair, and Jena Malone, as the fiery, out-spoken and broken Johanna Mason, are excellent new foils and enigmatic allies for Katniss and Peeta. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is another well-casted addition as the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, who works with Snow to undermine Katniss’ popularity with the people, and then toys with her in to surprising effect in the arena.
As for the arena itself, the first film’s version suffered from woodsy repetition and some ill-designed mutt dogs that didn’t add much weight or danger to the last act. The new arena, located in a lush tropical island, is stocked with acid-burning fog, menacing and realistic mutt monkeys, blood rain and more all of which actually puts horror into the games. It’s not just a game of cat and mouse anymore for Katniss and Peeta, it’s a full-frontal assault on them from every angle with diabolical new tortures creeping up to steal their lives with a cannon blast for emphasis. There’s real tension, surprises and, most importantly, earned emotion when death inevitably picks off victors one-by-one. And unlike the recent cavalcade of YA adaptations, Katniss’ renewed investment in Peeta isn’t played for dewey sighs, but with depth and as an extension of their earned loyalty which helps set the stage for a cliffhanger that doesn’t leave the audience cheated, but stoked for what happens after the fade to black. Catching Fire succeeds in honoring the themes of the price of war that are the foundation of Collin’s books, while also being an incredibly entertaining and resonant film. And Lawrence once again embodies Katniss with empathy and steel, adding new facets to a fully-realized cinematic heroine that only cements her place as one of the most dynamic and human characters fronting a blockbuster franchise.