Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right), Liam Hemsworth (The Expendables 2), Sam Claflin (Snow White & The Huntsman), Jena Malone (Sucker Punch), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), Elizabeth Banks (Slither), Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers)
Director: Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend)
Writers: Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBruyn (Oblivion)
Runtime: 2 hours 26 minutes
Release Date: 21 November (UK), 22 November (US)
The first Hunger Games was a success on several levels. Other than the obvious good critical reception and hefty box office receipts, it showed that adaptations of young adult novels could deal with heavy themes and ideas and not just be pandering crap filled with sparkly vampires. But it certainly wasn’t perfect. It dragged at points, it wasn’t always as original as it thought it was, and of course there’s that damn shaky-cam. But now the sequel, Catching Fire, is upon us. Did they bother to fix these problems, or is it just more of the same?
To answer that question bluntly: kind of, yeah. But let me elaborate. The film is structurally identical to the first film in many facets, with certain scenes and events repeated. But amazingly, this never bothered me too much, and I think I know why. Firstly, there are the characters. They certainly haven’t reverted back to the way they were at the start of the first film; the baggage they carry from those events is still strong and it seriously changes the way the film plays out. This is especially obvious when the film does shift gear, as the characters’ reactions to the twists in their path makes them feel that much more vulnerable. Another advantage is that the film doesn’t have to set up our main characters anymore, leaving more opportunities to delve deeper into their psyches and relationships, and the filmmakers certainly take them. Another factor that relates to this is the much stronger writing. The first film occasionally felt a little stilted, unsure how to communicate its ideas fluently. But here, it all flows much better. Character interactions are full of emotion, whether serious or relieving, and the film is so well paced that the extended running time breezes past; in fact, you probably won’t want it to end. But it certainly does, and with a hell of a cliffhanger. Sure, the film somewhat cheats you out of a third act, but the revelations that come in those final moments should have you clamouring to know what happens next. Unless of course you’ve read the books and you know what happens next, and if you did then please don’t tell me.
Catching Fire boasts an expansive cast, filled with both returning players and some welcome fresh faces. Jennifer Lawrence is as incredible as ever playing Katniss, taking what was already a strong character and making her even more sympathetic and awesome; she’s got an Oscar already for a reason, you know. Hutcherson has also developed well as an actor, and his performance as Peeta is great especially when sharing scenes with Lawrence. Harrelson, Banks and Lenny Kravitz return as well, and all get ample time to shine; the stand-out of them being Banks, who gets a couple of great subtle moments that hint that Effie isn’t just a shallow waif. Donald Sutherland gets a much bigger role this time round as the villainous President Snow and truly relishes his screen time; an early scene between him and Lawrence is just deliciously taut. The new characters are equally terrific, often stealing the show from our heroes. Claflin’s Finnick is a brilliant addition to the cast; he’s powerful and charming in equal measure, but still with an air of mystery around his intentions. His performance is not only a stark contrast to Claflin’s whiny pointless role in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but it also works as a great audition tape for him to play Aquaman (sorry, I know everyone’s already made the joke, but I couldn’t resist). Equally kick-ass is Malone as Johanna; her rebellious, no-bullsh*t attitude helps her stand apart from the others, and her introductory elevator scene perfectly encapsulates everything about her (trust me, you’ll see when it happens). Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lynn Cohen are also welcome additions, though they don’t get as much screen time as the other main players. Hoffman’s appearances are also limited, but he squeezes every moment for what it is worth and I think we’ll be seeing more of him later anyway. But, as with the last film, the weak link here is Liam Hemsworth as Gale. And I don’t completely blame this on Hemsworth as an actor; I just find the character of Gale seriously underwritten. He’s supposed to be Katniss’ true love, but I don’t at all get what is appealing about him. He’s just a bit bland to be honest, but Hemsworth doesn’t do anything to help elevate the material he’s given (something which his brother is very good at).
Remember that annoying shaky-cam from the first film? Remember how it obscured everything and got on your nerves? Well, it’s pretty much gone; the cinematography is much steadier here. Sure, the action is still fairly bloodless and isn’t shot or edited as fluidly as it could be, but it is still a massive improvement. It’s clear that this movie has a much bigger budget than the first film, as everything has been upped a notch since last time. The production is grander, the costumes are more extravagant (if you can even believe that), and the effects have received a much-needed update. Top it all off with a rapturous score from James Newton Howard, and you’ve got yourself a nice looking picture.
Catching Fire is a massive improvement on all fronts. It takes everything good about the first film and improves it, but also takes what wasn’t so good and fixes it. It is the Empire Strikes Back of the franchise, both in terms of story and achievement. As just a pure piece of entertainment, it is one of the best blockbusters of the year. Filmgoers who were perhaps a little underwhelmed by the first one should give this one a watch; hopefully they will enjoy it much more. And now to wait for the final chapter…wait, they’re splitting it in two?
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10