Against former winners, the future looks bleak for Katniss and Peeta
Editor's Note: This review contains spoilers of the first "Hunger Games" film.
There's no time to blink in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." Thrilling from start to finish, the dystopian sci-fi film picks up the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) a few months after their triumph in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, the subject of the first film in the blockbuster series based on the Suzanne Collins trilogy.
"There are no winners, only survivors," mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) explains to the constantly paranoid Katniss. Katniss and fellow District 12 contestant Peeta survived the reality show battle to the death in the 74th Hunger Games by wooing the TV audience with their feigned romance and forcing the Gamemakers to declare them co-winners after threatening to eat lethal berries simultaneously as the final two standing.
As "Catching Fire" begins, Katniss and Peeta are set to embark on the Victory Tour across all the districts and the Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears that the public sees Katniss not just as a teenager in love but as a rebel who beat the system. To make sure she does not inspire a popular rebellion, Snow warns Katniss that she must publicly sustain her ruse of being in love with Peeta. Otherwise, her family, her friends and even her coal-mining district could be in jeopardy.
Katniss agrees but Snow still wants "The Girl on Fire" dead. What better opportunity than the Quarter Quell? Every 25 years, the Hunger Games comes with a twist. As President Snow declares the rule of the 75th Games, we see Katniss, Haymitch and Peeta in their respective living rooms. "The male and female tributes will be reaped from the existing pool of winners," he announces. This can only mean one thing for Katniss, the only female winner ever from District 12: she is headed back into the arena.
In "Catching Fire," the arena has one major twist that is the difference between life and death. It is up to the tributes to figure it out. In the meantime, they have poisonous fog, deadly monkeys and giant lightning strikes coming their way. Plus, one early encounter with a force field could spell the end of a popular contestant.
If you liked the action in "The Hunger Games (I)," you will be even more pleased with "Catching Fire." In an attempt to adhere closely to Suzanne Collins's novel, "Hunger Games (I)" director Gary Ross included several scenes that made little sense without being able to delve into Katniss's mind. Smartly, Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence did away with scenes that only a first-person narrator could explain and added new subplots not directly involving Katniss. Plutarch Heavenbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the head gamekeeper who played an important yet unknown role to Katniss in the novel, was at the center of drama in the new film, for example.
Lawrence's directing outshines Ross's in other ways as well. During the bloodbath at the beginning of the 74th Games, Ross inserted music and otherwise muted the scene, presumably to avoid the necessary sounds of agony. That was a copout. In Lawrence's scene, by contrast, viewers are not shielded from the slaughter, but as the fallen tributes collapse into the water surrounding the cornucopia, there is no need for much blood. Whereas Ross often used a shaky camera style in a less than successful attempt to put the viewer in the Games, Lawrence's approach with a steady camera gives more of an at-home viewer sense, which is much more visually effective.
The three notable new characters are all well acted. Jeffrey Wright plays the part of Beetee, the District 3 tribute who the book describes as teacher-like and smarter than the other tributes. Sam Claflin portrays Finick Odair, the self-absorbed yet sympathetic winner from District 4. Finally, the best addition of all, Jena Malone plays the impulsive and at times puzzling Johanna Mason.
Those who did not read Catching Fire (and even those who did) may find the movie's ending pretty abrupt. Refer to Google for a more through explanation.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
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