When The Hunger Games was released in 2012, the talk around town was how a story that involves killing kids could keep a PG-13 rating in order to attract the audience that propelled the original novels to the top of the bestselling lists. The filmmakers were creative. Violence was shrouded by foliage. The filming, choppy and chaotic.
Clearly, with Catching Fire, the much anticipated sequel to the blockbuster film, director Francis Lawrence was not too concerned with such petty details. The series has taken off its gloves, entered the ring, and is a no-holds barred death fest that makes the TrackerJackers from the first film seem like honeybees from Pooh Corner.
The story starts off right where the last one ends. Katniss is back in District 12 with some understandable post-traumatic stress, about to go on the Hunger Games Victory Tour of all the districts in Panem. As much as she wants to put the games behind her, she is still a pawn of the Capital, forced to maintain a public relationship with Peeta, her fellow victor, and under the constant, watchful eye of President Snow. The last Hunger Games has sparked a revolution in Panem, and Snow places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Girl on Fire.
In order to quell the restlessness brewing in the districts, Snow, together with the new Game Master, Plutarch Heavensbee, devise a plan. For the next Hunger Games, tributes will be chosen from past victors. Which means, surprise! Katniss is going back to the arena.
The story follows the same pattern as the first – the public reaping, the Capital, the clothes, the talk show with Caesar Flickerman, the arena, the violent deaths – all the familiar elements that made the first movie so enjoyable. But the characters are older now and they are damaged. With revolution whispered everywhere, there is more at stake this time around. So even though we’ve seen this journey before, every aspect of it is different. The scenes are dark and intense and the humor, mainly from Haymitch and Johanna Mason, a tribute from District 7(played spot-on by Jena Malone), come as much needed relief to the building stress pervading every scene.
Make no mistake, this is an intense movie. Not just in terms of the action in the arena, but in the emotional punch the actors deliver. Everyone on the screen has stepped it up a notch, even Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, who spends most of his time in the role of “dude in distress.” Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, while still a bad-ass with a bow, is a much more emotional character than in the first film and Lawrence, not surprisingly, carries it off. Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss’s boy-back-at-home, is more than just the pretty face he was last time. Granted, he’s still nice to look at, especially in IMAX, but this time he will have you crying quicker than fawning. Most impressive though is Donald Sutherland’s evil-incarnate President Snow, and Philip Seymur Hoffman’s Plutarch. They are terrifying in their indifference. Just watching their scenes is worth the admission price alone.
Of course, the highlight of the film is the battle in the arena. The tributes are subjected to all sorts of sick torture – from insane monkeys, to poisonous fog, to rainstorms of blood. Their alliances are more complex, though and their characters more defined. The new tributes, particularly Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, are far more than the two-dimensional killers of the first film. The violence here is intense and swift, the effects jarring, and the tragedy of the Hunger Games themselves much more overt than last time. This is definitely a film that needs to be seen in IMAX, not just for the elaborate effects in the arena but also for the scenes in the always garish Capital.
Book purists will balk at the glaring omissions and subtle changes from Suzanne Collins original novel, but the movie maintains the important parts and delivers them at such a fast pace that you will swear the movie is shorter than its two hour and forty minute run-time. It is powerful and compact, and builds to a shocking “Luke! I am your father!” climax that will no doubt bring in the crowds once again for the next, eagerly anticipated chapter in the franchise. This will be a tough act to follow. Let’s hope they keep up the pace.