Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire / Cert: 12A / Director: Francis Lawrence / Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn / Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Lenny Kravitz / Release Date: November 21st
Catching Fire is a perfect subtitle for The Hunger Games' sequel. While many found the first entry a little bit bloodless and damp, Catching Fire burns at a much higher temperature. Though it begins out in the cold wilderness of District 12, the heat of revolution gradually builds before it all ends in a baking hot tropical arena. New director Francis Lawrence torches any criticisms of the first film and rises from the ashes with a superior blockbuster thriller.
When we catch up with Katniss (Lawrence), she is suffering from PTSD after her traumatic experiences in the arena and to make matters worse, things are increasingly icy between her and moping lover boy Peeta (Hutcherson). Donald Sutherland's President Snow turns up early to deliver exposition about the rising revolt and positively seethes with menace in the chilly opening. Things look completely glum for much of the first half; the only bursts of colour reserved for the flames of revolution and the Capitol's excesses.
After defying the President and surviving the games, Katniss and Peeta are sent on a victory tour to prove their love to the world and help stop the budding revolution. The victory tour takes in 12 districts in 12 days, finding little except fierce faces and growing unrest. They smile and wave and read scripted words in order to douse the flames but revolution is nonetheless cooking. It is in the slogans, the graffiti and the defiance of the people that come to see their victors speak.
Incoming director Francis Lawrence (replacing Gary Ross) creates a mournful tone from the very first frames. The snow-covered landscapes and static camera (phew!) captures District 12 in dull colours that ooze misery. Capturing his stars in silhouettes, the director is transforming Katniss into the icon she must become. The flaming dresses may still raise as many chuckles as dazzled gasps, but they were always going to work better on the page than on the screen. Nevertheless Jennifer Lawrence sizzles sensationally throughout.
The mood extends to countless genuinely emotional moments. Faced by Rue's family, Katniss' tribute to the dead girl is heart-wrenching and is followed by one of the most brutal moments of the franchise so far. All of this is aided no end by the newly crowned young queen of Hollywood who is ready to soar as the Mockingjay. Lawrence the director trusts Jennifer Lawrence the star implicitly and finds plenty of time for close-ups that leave little to the imagination and demonstrate why she is currently one of the very best in the business. Just wait for the closing shot as her expression changes in the final frames. It is worth the price of admission alone.
Plenty of characters return with Woody Harrelson's Haymitch still mainly battling alcoholism for comic effect and Elizabeth Banks' Effie as equally effervescent/annoying as she was in the first film. Stanley Tucci's teeth steal scenes, even outshining Effie's ever more ludicrous outfits. Liam Hemsworth's Gale gets slightly more to do this time but is still on the sidelines when it comes to the games while Peeta continues to be the sympathetic sweetheart of the story in opposition to Katniss' feisty hero.
The film is littered with brooding contemporary relevance. From what looks like District 11's black power salute to Haymitch's warning to Katniss and Peeta that they are celebrities designed to distract the ordinary people from the hardships of their lives, it is dripping with the bread and circuses subtext of Suzanne Collins' book.
Catching Fire takes plenty of time getting to the main event but it never drags. Every second counts and the scenes outside the new arena are as riveting as those inside. However, when the games begin, it is absolutely exhilarating. There are new tributes, all ex-winners and experienced killers, and a new and improved battleground with new wildlife, new threats and plenty of new ways to die. The tributes range from the forgettable and completely underwritten to those who will be increasingly important as the franchise continues. From Sam Claflin's smirking but soft Finnick Odair to Jena Malone's hilarious hard ass Joanna, the world of The Hunger Games opens up wide with plenty of new characters. Most intriguingly of all is Philip Seymour Hoffman's new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Treading a fine line between sinister and mysterious, Hoffman plays it perfectly.
Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn's screenplay is gripping and James Newton Howard's emotive score may not be groundbreaking but works brilliantly in the heart-wrenching moments. The romance is starved of oxygen by the grim mood of the first half but finally sparks begin to fly until it positively crackles by the end. Building to an electrifying climax, this is one of the best science fiction sequels since The Empire Strikes Back. Burn, baby, burn.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10