You’ve got to feel sorry for Katniss Everdeen. The hero of any story has to be prepared for a bit of pain and suffering, but she’s really being put through the mill. After emerging triumphant at the end of The Hunger Games, saving both her own life and that of her soft-of-almost-boyfriend’s through a clever bit of trickery, you’d think she’d be allowed to relax for a while. But no. No, things are about to get much, much worse for Katniss…
Catching Fire picks up more or less where the first film left off. Katniss and Peeta have returned home to District 12, where they’re rewarded with huge new houses and all the food they can eat, but that doesn’t mean they can live happily ever after. Winning the Hunger Games comes with more than just a material prize – Victors can also look forward to traumatic flashbacks, constant nightmares, and an inability to let their guard down, ever again. And for Katniss in particular, there’s an added bonus: because her public act of defiance has sparked a rebellion in the Districts, she’ll either have to become the Capitol’s puppet, or the President will kill everyone she loves, as a little reminder of who’s really in charge.
Thanks to the careful world-building in The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is able to cut straight to the emotional meat of the story without worrying too much about scene-setting. Panem is a cruel place, and the entire first hour of the film is devoted to showing just how much worse things have got since we last visited – it’s raw, painful, and devastatingly effective. Katniss might be a symbol of hope for the Districts, but she’s also just a girl, and each new act of violence affects her deeply.
It’s almost a cliché at this point to praise Jennifer Lawrence for her acting, but her performance is vital to the success of this film, and she’s flawless. Katniss’s every thought is clearly legible on her face, every feeling visible in her eyes. The Hunger Games saga is all about grand gestures and crushing emotions playing out on an enormous scale, and without Lawrence, it’s hard to imagine it how it could work. Her Katniss feels utterly real and deeply relatable, and if you’re not crying by the end of the first act, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.
The only disadvantage to Lawrence’s brilliance is that her co-stars tend to look a bit slack by comparison. Even so, there are some great supporting performances in Catching Fire. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta manages to convey just the right mixture of defiance and vulnerability; Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is, once again, short-changed as far as screen time goes, but he does at least provide an interesting foil for Peeta. Elizabeth Banks is, once again, brilliant as Effie, especially in her quieter moments, and Stanley Tucci’s Caesar is a glitzy, sinister, menacing delight. And Jenna Malone as Johanna Mason is pitch perfect casting – you can already see the animated gifs that are going to be made of her scenes.
There might be a few too many new characters, though, especially since so many of them won’t survive. Blink and you’ll completely miss who most of the Victors are meant to be; there’s just enough information given that fans of the books will be able to work through a mental tick list of characters as they pop up, but if you haven’t read the books, they might as well just call them Cannon Fodder 1 – 17.
The only new character in Catching Fire who really matters is Finnick, and he doesn’t quite translate to the screen. He isn’t in it for long enough to make as much of an impact as he should, and he doesn’t get all of his hero moments, either. Whether he’s magnetically attractive enough probably depends on whether or not you fancy Sam Claflin, but he doesn’t quite seem to have the charisma that’s so necessary to Finnick’s character.
The other problem with Catching Fire is that there’s a bit of an Empire Strikes Back vibe to it; it’s not really a complete story in its own right. It feels like, well, what it is – the middle part of a story, the bridge between the beginning and the end. And it ends on a cliffhanger, which is a bit anticlimactic. There are also some accusations of sequelitis to be made, especially towards the end, when it starts to feel like certain parts of the first film are just being replayed on a slightly larger scale.
But those are issues the film has inherited from the book, so maybe it’s not fair to take it to task over them. Director Francis Lawrence was facing a hell of a challenge in taking over The Hunger Games franchise from Gary Ross, but he’s done a fantastic job of staying true to both the first film and the book, and – whisper it – this might even be a more satisfying adaptation than the first one. The world is just as fully realised, the CGI is more convincing, and the violence, this time round, is even more shocking.
There’s even one clever use of muted obscenity, which feels like it might be pushing at the limits of the 12A rating.
Maybe it’s a little bit top-heavy, and despite its breakneck pace, it can’t quite hide the fact that at 146 minutes, it’s really, really long. But there’s barely a second of it you’d want to miss. Catching Fire is a gorgeously made film: a brave, cutting political parable with an enormous heart. It’s going to be a long wait for Mockingjay Part 1.
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