Last year, I enjoyed The Hunger Games. Not a terribly controversial statement, I think a few people quite liked it. Part of my positivity stems, I am sure, from the fact that I went in expecting Twilight with a post-apocalyptic desktop theme.
In actuality, The Hunger Games was much more intelligent than that. It even flirted with being out and out science-fiction.
I did have criticisms. It was far too sanitised — even in a YA film, you don’t need to be patronising — and there was a colossal mismatch in the complexity of the various key relationships. As I left the cinema, I commented that I would have made it a standalone film, and ended on a montage of revolution-esque explosions.
So even suffering from series-fatigue as I was at the time, Catching Fire finds itself with an uphill struggle.
But to my intense amazement, I found it more than equal to the challenge.
Catching Fire opens almost immediately following the end of The Hunger Games, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peter Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as tools of the oppressive government in The Capital. Sadly, they inspire rebellion and revolution wherever they go, and so the oppression is ramped up. Eventually President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new ‘gamesmaker’ Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the character to out-name Benadryl Crucifix) decide to get rid of Katniss. So they stick her and Peeta in a new hunger games, along with a selection of the deadliest winners of games gone by.
Now, Catching Fire seems to have gotten a lot of flack for essentially being the first film, again. And yes, there is an element of “The Hunger Games 2: Hungrier!” to it. But that only stands up if you view the games themselves as being the lynchpin of the film.
And they aren’t.
This isn’t a film about a bunch of kids (not even, this time…) stuck in a room and made to kill each other. In fact, this is the social commentary and examination that I wanted from the first film. And actually the “Quarter Quell” (an abysmal name, but I suppose they were stuck with it from the book) is a desperate gambit by a dictator losing control.
Having defied the government at the end of the last film, Katniss has become a walking symbol of defiance. Even when she tries to be compliant, she still incites oppressed populations to riot through her very existence. And when all of the victors try desperately to call for the games to be called off, there is real emotion in essentially non-characters.
Because this is a film about the consequences of its predecessor. In the social terms of revolution, yes, but also the personal. Not a single one of the victors has been left psychologically undamaged by their torments, and Katniss as much as any. The film doesn’t play around with it, either. There is no magic cure, and the emotional and mental torture is grim and unrelenting. A particularly powerful scene has Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) are assailed by mockingjays (an inexcusably weak feature in the first film) parroting anguished cries for help of their loved ones. It is brief, but brutal, and in a film with a 12a rating surprisingly heavy.
I still have problems with the film (when don’t I?). For one, who is in the government? Donald Sutherland is particularly impressive as President Snow, but is that it? Seymour Hoffman’s Heavensbee is essentially the Hunger Games’ Sebastian Coe, but is there no cabinet? Or even advisors? And why does the security response for the entire uprising seem to be co-ordinated from Katniss and Peeta’s train?
But those are minor quibbles. This is a film which has definitely exceeded my expectations, joining that select group of sequels who surpassed their predecessors. It manages to invest sympathy and character into minor characters, and the violence — whilst still being sanitised — is gruelling and part of a larger tapestry of torturing enemies of the regime. Lenny Kravitz (who is an actor now) has one of the most memorable of these scenes, with his fate being calculating, heart-wrenching, and all part of the bigger picture.
When Haymitch Abernathy (an excellent performance by Woody Harrelson) tells Katniss that “There are no winners, only survivors”, he is summing up the film excellently. The final twist which it all led up to was one of the best choreographed that I’ve seen, fitting into the story like the right jigsaw piece and setting up the next act flawlessly.
Catching Fire is exactly what I wanted from this franchise. It is dark, violent, and smart. It is the film of what comes after The Hunger Games, and deserves credit for being both brave and unashamedly science-fiction. With the writing and acting talent it commands, it was not only the perfect counter-argument to the likes of Twilight — proving that popular YA need be neither patronising nor asinine — but a truly commendable film of itself.
Go and see it.