The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
What It Is
The simple premise of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is this: just when Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) thought she was free, or maybe free-ish, she’s pulled back in. The film opens in the woods, the environment in which this expert archer has long felt just a little bit at home. She and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are hunting deer, and for a moment, in the quiet, you might imagine that, as she’s survived the Hunger Games in the first movie, The Hunger Games, she’s now able to focus on the present. But no. As soon as she lets loose her arrow, she flashes back to shooting a boy: devastated by what she did, she drops back, her eyes wide and breath short.
Though Gale does his best to soothe her, for a minute, he’s got his own issues, namely, his jealousy over the act that saved her during those Games, her feigned love for fellow victor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). She is hardly happy that this act turned her into a celebrity and so, potential rebel leader, and continues to resist the role when she and Peeta are sent out on their Victory Tour, visiting districts in Panem whose tributes were killed. Each of these visits stirs up trouble, as crowds of poor folks hold up their fingers in the sign of the mockingjay, remembering dead little Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and in their way, vowing to rise up against the system that took her.
As much as Katniss might believe in this rebellion, she remains reluctant: she wants to run away with Gale (he insists he needs to stay and fight, though it remains unclear what he’ll fight or how), she wants to live quietly in the house now provided for her less fragile mother (Paula Malcomson) and increasingly sturdy sister Prim (Willow Shields), and she wants nothing to do with Peeta, who continues to profess his not-pretend love for her. Despite her best efforts not to lead, however, Katniss finds this role unavoidable when the odious and fearful President Snow (Donald Sutherland) ordains a new sort of Games, an All Star edition which sends her and Peeta into a tropical jungle to do battle with older victors from years past.
And so the future-set film introduces yet another layer to its metaphor for today’s war, wherein US military “volunteers” must sign on for or are stop-lossed into multiple tours. Following the requisite appearance on stage with the sensational emcee Caesar (Stanley Tucci) and backstage scheming with the so-clever stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and the mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), she determines to use her considerable skills to save Peeta in these Games, even if this means her own death in the end. They endure multiple ordeals, shootouts and hand-to-hand fights with opponents, an attack by scary monkeys and toxic mist. They meet a motley crew of allies, including the outraged and sometimes outrageous Johanna (Jena Malone), while the eccentric-seeming old folks, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), provide a bit of age diversity.
But even as they work together, all the players know this adventure can’t end well. “Nobody ever wins the Games,” asserts Haymitch, who knows whereof he speaks. He knows that everyone who plays the Games is a player for life, that their deaths and commemorations serve the living. What he doesn’t point out here, because he can’t be aware of the other audience, beyond Panem, is that the franchise in which he continues to survive is yet another iteration of the problem. Self-knowing, cynical, and urgently melodramatic, The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire indict you for watching it even as it asks you to buy in. And that is the genius of every iteration of the Games no one can ever win.
Why It’s Fun
Katniss continues to impress, a smart, sensitive, and courageous girl caught up in a mix of loyalties and betrayals, and especially, a girl who is increasingly aware of how media images do their work. If she learned in the first film how to manipulate her own performance for ever-present cameras, here she figures out as well how to manage the performances of others... until, of course, in this middle film of the franchise, she cannot and so is tossed into a maelstrom of maneuvers, whether engineered by Snow or his new game designer Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
New director Francis Lawrence brings a more substantive composition to the story (at least when Katniss and company are not in the city, where unconvincing, brightly colored and cartoonish excess continues to reign).
As Katniss’ emotional and moral dilemmas become increasingly difficult, the film tends to offer too easy answers... until it doesn’t. And it is more compelling when it does not sort out ambiguities concerning the stakes of performance or the costs of becoming a celebrity.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the YA book series by Suzanne Collins as well as the first film will want to see this one: it’s more nuanced (relatively speaking) than the previous movie, even if it is limited by a basic episodic outline.
What To Be Aware Of
The Games are by definition violent, and the film makes this clear, though not excessively gory. Characters are killed, some blood is visible, and reactions — sadness and anger — are part of Katniss’ education here.
The obstacles placed before the tributes in this version of the Games include scary fanged monkeys, poison mist, and bloody rain (you don’t see this, but you hear Johanna describe it in detail, still covered in thick red blood.
Back in District 12, Gale is tied to a stake and lashed by the new local mucky-muck; his injuries are bloody and revealed in a few medium shots.
Johanna is introduced in a scene where she rides an elevator with Katniss, Haymitch, and Peeta: she strips in front of them, partly to seduce and partly to intimidate: you see her naked back (no buttocks) and their faces, variously impressed or not.
Haymitch drinks repeatedly, appears drunk, and must be awakened and sobered up by the kids he’s supposed to be mentoring. Such self-medication is his means of dealing with his own PTSD, a point the film makes clear in his repeated references to the traumas of the Games.
Mild language includes Johanna’s one-time exclamation (“Oh sh**”).
8 out of 10
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer
US General Release: November 22, 2013
UK General Release: November 21, 2013