In The Hunger Games, both the first installment in this three book trilogy now being turned into four films and in the titular, yearly, totalitarian, blood-sport that first book/movie depicts, Katniss got the better of her autocratic overlords by subverting their system, casting herself and her friend, Peeta, as fated, star-crossed lovers, and winning the media-hyped mercy of the crowd. In this sequel, Catching Fire, Katniss must maintain the lie that saved her life and trust that others are just as unhappy as she is about the way their world works and are perhaps more ready to do something about it.
Catching Fire is every bit as good as its predecessor and maybe even a little better thanks to a steadier camera and a more robust supporting cast. In the first movie, the hand-held camera work did well to emphasize the tumult in which Katniss found herself caught up. The audience was often as disoriented and frantic as she was. In this new film, the camera often sits still, allowing spaces and situation to engulf us, overwhelm us, and make us feel small in relation to them. This is exactly what is happening to Katniss. Futility encroaches on her efforts to save herself and her family as forces beyond her understanding swallow her up.
Jennifer Lawrence is, again, fine as Katniss, but it’s the supporting cast that really steals the show this time. Woody Harrelson, proving he is proud to be in these movies, is even better this time around as Haymitch. Josh Hutcherson, though he’s given only a few real moments to show it in the complicated plot, admirably demonstrates Peeta’s sadness at being Katniss’ second choice and his resolve and courage nonetheless. Willow Shields, Katniss’ sister Prim, has even less screen-time, but she establishes her character as having depth and abilities beyond what even Katniss suspects.
Then, there are the many former victors culled for this year’s games. Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, and especially Jena Malone give performances that show all the ways the media-obsessed, class system of Panem has robbed people of their dignity and all the ways these same people have sustained their indelible humanity. Catching Fire‘s story and main character are engaging, but you could just as easily watch and enjoy the movie for what’s happening around the edges and for the moments when those edges intrude on the center. One begins to get the feeling Katniss is just another character in a much larger, much richer story.
At this point in my review, I could take one of two paths. I could write about how we’re all characters in a larger story and how we’d do better to be a little less self-centered. Or, I could write about learning to trust others, as Katniss has to do in this movie. Either of those themes would be in keeping with what I’ve written thus far and in concert with the film.
I could also write about some of the other thematic elements woven throughout this narrative – surveillance states, star-obsession, legend versus reality, non-violent protest, and more. This story is rich with topical and worthwhile touch-points. In that way, I think it’s a little better than the book it’s based upon. The book’s story is told from Katniss’ point of view, so it is focused on her issues above all others. The movie manages to explore all of them in more or less equal measure. Any of them are worth your contemplation. (In fact, the movie may be even better if you haven’t read the books, because then you’ll be surprised by what happens.)
Credit the richness of this story to the complex and interesting world Suzanne Collins has created and to the group effort of all the filmmakers involved in this studio-produced film series. Sometimes, many voices make for a cacophony. Other times, many voice make a chorus. Catching Fire is a chorus.