When following up a wildly successful film or book–or, in the case of The Hunger Games, both–a blatant rehash is somewhat expected, and maybe to a certain degree is what is desired by the die hard fans. So credit is due to author Suzanne Collins and the makers of the film adaptation of the second novel in the Games series, Catching Fire, in that they have managed that seemingly paradoxical feat of being both a retread yet a sufficiently original work that expands upon the established mythology. One better know said established mythology going in here; although this is only the second film in the series (of a planned four total), director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt approach this like a late-period Harry Potter installment dispensing fairly completely of any newcomer-friendly catch-up exposition. After being crowned co-winners of the annual Games–in which children are randomly drawn and forced in a to-the-death battle royale–Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) go on a tour of the republic of Panem not so much to celebrate their victory than to serve as propaganda pawns to reinforce the iron fist of the government over the oppressed masses. But the spark ignited by Katniss’s rebellion during those games has only grown, forcing the President (Donald Sutherland), with the help of a new Game Maker (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to come up with a plan to not only wipe out Katniss and any lingering inspiration for a revolution.
And that plan is to, yes, get Katniss back into the Games arena–as well as all previous victors for a very special all-star edition for the Hunger Games’ 75th year, thus setting the stage for a not-quite-rehash. Again, pairs of “tributes” from each of Panem’s districts are plopped into a electronically-controlled wilderness setting for the entertainment of viewing audiences (though this aspect is downplayed this time), but with the participants being previous winners, the age range now varies from younger people like Katniss and Peeta to senior citizens and all points in between. Thus are shed any of those lingering comparisons to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale–though, with the adult competitors, the eclectic, eccentric mix of personalities and strategies, and the rampant talk of forming alliances in a harsh, primitive environment instead bring to mind another existing pop culture stalwart: Survivor. But this new wrinkle does infuse the familiar scenario with a fresh energy, and Lawrence, a much more seasoned hand at action than the previous film’s helmer Gary Ross, ups the ante with style (using IMAX cameras and their expanded visual frame to shoot the entire arena passage of the film was an especially clever and effective call). More notable is the freshness brought by the additions to the cast, most notably Hoffman as well as Jeffrey Wright, lending some gravitas as a tech expert tribute; and a live wire Jena Malone as a tribute whose fearless ferocity masks and is matched by her heart.
But as in the first film, the film catches fire thanks to she who plays the “Girl on Fire”: Jennifer Lawrence. The unwavering emotional authenticity and conviction she brings to the proceedings, no matter how fanciful or genre formula-driven they get, is truly invaluable. She even adequately sells though not completely smooths over the series’ one glaring shortcoming: the half-hearted romantic triangle between Katniss, longtime best friend/love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), and “TV boyfriend” Peeta, whose feelings are, of course, not just for show; Lawrence’s chemistry balance continues to be squarely tilted toward Hutcherson and not the ever-vapid Hemsworth. With the filming of two more Games already in progress, the other Lawrence, Francis (who is also directing those upcoming films), doesn’t bother to resolve anything more than the most bare minimum of plot threads, leaving and introducing many cliffhanging issues right before the final fade-out, but regardless of one’s fandom level, the Lawrence who is in front of and authoritatively commands the camera ensures that any viewer has some vestige of interest and investment in whatever comes next.
By Michael Dequina
Check out the new trailer below: