The problem with making a “sure thing” is that sometimes, through laziness or simple ineptitude, film producers play it way too safe. The first two Harry Potter movies, for example, played it way too safe to warrant much enthusiasm — but once the producers set up their framework, got comfortable with the material, and (of course) made huge money on the first two films, they got a lot more creative and allowed some interesting directors to play around in the Hogwarts sandbox. And now it seems that another teen-friendly genre sensation has followed the same pattern; after an entertaining but sort of simplistic start with one film, the producers of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire have decided to take a few chances — and just about all of them work.
We pick up right where The Hunger Games left off: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are the co-champions of the titular death match, and now their job is to travel across the “12 districts” and spread the word about the beauty and generosity of “the ruling class.” Try as they might, our heroes are unable to support such blatant and repulsive lies, and this kick-starts a chain of events that turns the former darlings of The Hunger Games into virtual enemies of the state — and yes, there will be a return to “the games.” A much faster, darker, and nastier version, too.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) takes over from Gary Ross (Pleasantville), plus we have key changes in the screenwriter and cinematography department, which makes it all the more impressive that Catching Fire “clicks” together with its predecessor in an unexpectedly satisfying fashion. The characters you love are back, as are the most interesting themes and ideas from Suzanne Collins’ crazily popular source material, but like most good sequels, Catching Fire expands the scope, raises the stakes, and throws a few unexpected curveballs at the audience. (Well, “unexpected” to those who haven’t read the books, anyway.)
For a multi-genre amalgam that includes DNA from drama, romance, action, science fiction, and even a little dash of horror, Catching Fire is (strangely and pleasantly) at its best when it simply focuses on Katniss and Peeta as they realize that they’re not so much “heroes” anymore as they are “symbols.” And once they quickly realize that symbols can be twisted, distorted, and misrepresented, they grow up a little. The central theme of Catching Fire is a rather clever one: that the inability to “fake” love is what may ultimately lead to the downfall of a blatantly evil but seemingly invincible government system, and the screenwriters do a fine job of keeping the film accessible to both newcomers and hardcore Suzanne Collins junkies.
It’s as if the producers took a stern look at what didn’t work in film one and tried to make adjustments for film two. The cinematography, for example, is considerably more fluid and smooth than what was found in The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove that she’s one of the most interesting and quietly likable young actors around, and Woody Harrelson is just as much fun as he was in the first chapter, but Josh Hutcherson seems a lot more comfortable in his role this time around — and it seems like the always amusing Elizabeth Banks was toned down (just a touch) for the sequel, and the result is a better performance. Donald Sutherland continues to ooze officious malice as the evil President Snow, and this time around he has Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a devious new “games maker”) to play off of, and that duo is just plain old fun to watch.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire seems to borrow a page from the Aliens “how to make a sequel” playbook: remember the key points that the fans know, love, and want to see — but also make sure to include a fair share of fresh ideas, new characters, or (at the very least) some novel action bits. Catching Fire not only recalls the finest moments of The Hunger Games, but it expands, broadens, and refocuses the franchise on a new direction. Given that (at least) 75% of the “young adult novel movie” are little more than empty-headed regurgitations of precisely what’s on the page, it’s great to see at least one series try to do more than “just good enough” for the fans who’ll go see the film no matter what. That little extra dash of intangible effort can often be the difference between a decent but forgettable film and a really good one. Catching Fire is a really good one.
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