Produced and distributed by Lionsgate Entertainment
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Croatian release: 22 November 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
The Hunger Games novels and films—of which Catching Fire is the second of four—have captivated readers and movie-goers world-wide in a way that probably no other science-fiction franchise has since Star Wars, gaining a loyal popular fan-base plus plenty of praise from film and literary critics alike. Author Suzanne Collins has, like Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling before her, created a vast cast of likable, deep, characters and nuanced future worlds and plots to keep her young adult fans on the edge of their seats and just as the world she created is spell-binding on the pages of a novel, it also translates very well to the big screen. The second film, Catching Fire, picks up where the first left off, with Katniss and Peeta returning home to District 12 after winning the 74th Hunger Games and becoming the first dual-winners ever as in all other Hunger Games, only one winner has been allowed but after the two supposed lovers vow to commit suicide if only one is allowed to win (and thus live, as all losers are also killed in the brutal games), the Game-master allows an exception that both can be crowned as victors. Despite this happy ending, problems are only starting to really get difficult for the pair, who now are forced to carry on the farce of their supposed romance under the ever-watchful gaze of the government. Meanwhile, inspired by Katniss’ acts of courage and defiance in the Games, many ordinary people in the varied Districts are starting to question the power of dictator President Snow and rise up against his government which has long enslaved these Districts to the benefit of the Capitol but via grave hardships to the Districts themselves where the common people often live in abject poverty.
To say much more of the plot would be to give away plenty of what happens in the film, so it’s probably best to focus on the specifics of the film, the acting, and what’s to like versus what could have been better. Thankfully, overall, the film’s a hit and reaches the highest level of grand story-telling in the best sci-fi tradition of legends such as Star Wars and Dr. Who. There is just enough emphasis on aspects of science, and thus science-fiction, in the film to add the proper level of intrigue into how the government has established its control and how the film’s heroes can overcome that yoke to be interesting and to rise above simply being an action-adventure film set in the future. Make no mistake, this is bona fide science-fiction, but Collin’s real talent is in producing sci-fi that doesn’t require a deep investment of introspection into the science or world-building at hand to appreciate the story. The film, moreover, despite being the second of four, stands alone quite well and I imagine could easily be enjoyed by someone who has not read the novels or even watched the first movie. That’s quite a stellar accomplishment for any film that is part of a larger literary universe. A good part of this is due to tight, to-the-point, script-writing and also Jennifer Lawerence’s amazing, entrancing job playing the lead character, Katniss Everdeen. Elizabeth Banks also does a first-rate job with the character of Effie Trinket, even more so in this film than the first one, and Donald Sutherland plays the cruel President Snow with every degree of legendary acting skill you would expect from an actor of his stature and experience. It is however perhaps Bank’s performance that is most-outstanding as she takes the character of Effie Trinket, who in the first film is seen as nearly evil, to someone who is on the side of good (at least in tacit terms) and is able to demonstrate a very real combination of emotion and confusion as she seems to realize that everything she was brought up to believe is right in fact really is more or less wrong. That type of character is something an author can develop over time in the lengthy pages of a novel, but to illustrate their changing nature via swift nuances in short scenes of a film is a much harder task indeed. Banks pulls it off though, and in Effie was can find a paradigm for all the mid-level leaders and officers of any fascist state who are confronted with the difficult choice of deciding whether actual truth is what they’ve believed for years or what they’re starting to see with their own two eyes. A character like that is much closer to the everyday person (which is ironic, given Effie’s elite status in the story) than the extremes of a hero like Katniss or a villain like President Snow. The character of Finnick Odair (played by Sam Claflin) who is introduced in this film, is also put to exceptional use and Claflin does a fine job of balancing this complex character’s emotional composition out despite having scant time to really develop the character on-screen.
What is there not to like, or at least what could have been better? From reading the books, some minor aspects have been left out and the sense of uprising in the Districts isn’t given perhaps quite as much time as is needed to be fully understood in the film whereas ample time is spent on it in the book, though such is one of the areas where novels often have a natural advantage over movies. The training period prior to the games in the Capitol also feels slightly rushed and not as involved as in the first film, but then, to make the movie run only slightly over two hours, this had to be the case, probably. More time and effort was required in the opening scenes to expand on the relationships Katniss has with Gale, Peeta, and other characters.
Despite all this, as in the first film, the scriptwriters have been as faithful as possible to Collins’ deep and complex novels and most of her original story translates markedly well to film, perhaps thanks in part to Collins’ own involvement in these films as an executive producer and consultant. The sets are breath-taking, especially the customized train that Effie takes Katniss and the other Hunger Games tributes from District 12 to the Capitol on and the Hunger Games arena itself. Costuming is also outstanding, especially Effie Trinket’s elaborate fashion, as costume designer Trish Summerville worked with both her own new creations and extant pieces from collections by a variety of world-class designers. The musical score is effective if not one that will win an immediate spot in memory as some film scores do, and the overall sense of design for the film is very strong, unique, and more detailed and powerful than that of the first film, which in all regards was not really lacking in depth, either. All these aspects of film-making from the first-rate performances by the actors to the fast-paced script and direction to the costuming and post-production special effects makes the world of The Hunger Games spring to life in vivid color and action. I cannot imagine that any fan of the novels will be disappointed in this movie and believe that even movie-goers who have not read the books will be drawn in, probably wishing to see the first film and pick up one of the books as soon as they leave the theatre.