Francis Lawrence (no relation) takes the helm of this second film of the ‘Hunger Games’ quadrilogy (3 books, 4 films; that’s the way it goes these days, right?). Taking over from Gary Ross he maintains the vision of dystopian Panem and the gaudy displays of privilege in the Capitol.
We meet Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in the woods of District 12, her most comfortable arena, looking for all the world like she never left – hunting and foraging as she used to before luxury came her way with her Hunger Games success. But it doesn’t take long for the trauma to kick in. With the flashbacks starting early it’s clear that this is not the same, level-headed Katniss from her time before the Arena. But her life is not the same either.
She and Peeta are about to set off on their ‘glamorous’ victory tour, ending with an extraordinary, visually overwhelming party in the Capitol, and her new home, the victor’s village, is filled with opulent houses that no-one knows what to do with. Haymitch’s is obviously a mess, as is he.
It would seem some things never change. But having witnessed the events of the Katniss and Peeta’s time in the Arena it is ever more possible to sympathise with Woody Harrelson’s drunk, who is doing his best of hide from the world that has so totally demolished him. “There are survivors. There are no winners.”
Lawrence does well with a character often held up as a fully-blown heroine, but who has always seemed much more of an unwilling mascot. As ever, she is the last to know everything (which can be irritating but is true to the novels), and can come across as rather cold but there are opportunities in Catching Fire for more heartfelt moments; the visit to District 11 is genuinely moving and the jabberjay scene in the Arena is gut-wrenching and (honestly?) frightening.
Once again Stanley Tucci steals the whole movie with the whitest teeth since Simon Cowell although he is given the yearly run for his money by Elizabeth Banks, as an understandably emotional Effie (with stupendous costumes throughout), and Lenny Kravitz whose Cinna once again allows Katniss to show some sincere emotional honesty. Josh Hutcherson really comes into his own as Peeta who, this time around, knows exactly what his role is in this ‘game’ and plays it with aplomb.
Because of the first person nature of the novels there are some interesting developments that have to be created for the film, but they work very well. It is great to get a real sense of President Snow’s oppressive intentions (“Fear does not work if people have hope”) and to see behind the scenes of the Arena and its political purpose. Thomas Newton Howard’s thoughtful score does well to err on the side of caution, happy to underscore and support the action rather than overwhelm it. And it’s always nice to have such delicacy in what could otherwise be a brash, crass, blockbuster, what with all the death and destruction (Man of Steel, anyone?).
As is typical of a middle part of a movie sequence, Catching Fire struggles to find a truly climactic ending and there are times when you feel it approaching that you wish it would hurry up and get to the point. But it does leave you salivating for the next hit.
Are there elements disappointingly left behind in the book? Of course there are. But with 146 minutes to play with, Catching Fire certainly gets its main point across – there’s gonna be a revolution. Bring it on.
The Hunger Games is out in UK cinemas on 21st November