hunger_games_catching_fire_posterTrilogies are the equivalent of the three-act structure of any movie. The first movie is the set up, the second movie ups the stakes, and the third movie brings it all to a close. Of course there’s plenty of action, exposition, and world-building thrown in there at various points, but you get the idea. With this mind-set in tact, the second movie of a trilogy is usually the hardest to do since it’s the bridge between the almost simplistic set-up of the first movie and the, hopefully, more complex conclusion. It’s about keying up the protagonists for a cause they’re willing to fight for because there are stakes involved that have world-shattering and personal consequences.

In this case, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence, benefits immensely from the missteps of the first movie to make a tightly packaged and mostly solid film. Everything’s bigger in this movie because the narrative demands it, which is why we get a greater production value, bigger sets, better special effects, and a stronger sense of who Katniss is and how her participation in the Hunger Games has affected her and affected Panem. To sum up the plot in a nutshell: After Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) defied the games and came out as dual winners, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees her as a threat to the power of The Capitol over the 12 Districts of Panem. While on a victory tour of the districts, Katniss and Peeta begin to see the results of their defiance as people from the various districts start to rise up and fight back against the power of The Capitol. Given an opportunity to squash the rebellious spirit she ignited, for the 75th Hunger Games, also called a Quarter Quell, Snow arranges for the game’s participants to be chosen from former winners. When Katniss and Peeta are chosen again, they need to figure out who to trust and how to survive even as their complicated relationship becomes more complicated.

The girl on fireThat’s about as basic as I can get, but trust me when I say there’s so much more going on in Catching Fire and none of it feels out of place or unearned. Catching Fire is about the aftermath of a defiant act and its impact, but it’s also about positioning Katniss into the role of a willing revolutionary. The games don’t even factor into the movie until the midpoint because, really, the games aren’t as important to the narrative as they are a plot device to motivate Katniss. Before the games, she’s still trying to deal with the post-traumatic stress of “winning” the games. She can’t hunt without seeing hallucinations of the people she killed and she wakes up screaming from terrible nightmares. Her relationships with Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are strained because of what she did during the games, and everything she’s done up to this point has been about keeping her mother and her sister Prim (Willow Shields) safe. A visit from President Snow before the victory tour, threatening her family and blackmailing her, only amps up the tension and the pressure Katniss is under. She doesn’t want to be a hero or an example, but because of the nature of The Capitol and its obsession with power and image, Katniss has become a reluctant symbol of revolution. When she doesn’t act, people get hurt, and when she does act, people get hurt. There’s no middle ground for her anymore, so she has to choose a side and by the end of the movie, when they cut away from her, we as an audience know exactly what Katniss has decided.

The cast is just amazing this time around. Jennifer Lawrence, once again, makes Katniss the coldest and most vulnerable character without forcing the emotions. Katniss is such an interesting protagonist because she doesn’t see anything she does as revolutionary or special. She does what she has to do to survive, reserving what little capacity she has to care for a spare amount of people. She can’t concern herself with the bigger picture because it doesn’t mean anything to her and Lawrence does a fantastic job of showing how reserved she is and the slow burn of her emotional state changing over time. Josh Hutcherson finally gets a fair shake in this as Peeta’s allowed to be more than just dead weight. He’s not just the lovesick puppy of the first movie, he understands the political and image-conscious side of the games more than Katniss and he tries to protect her as much as she protects him. The script also allows for a more nuanced exploration of their friendship/romance, making it easier to see why Katniss would really start to fall for him. Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is the only other major player in the movie and he’s suitably creepy while simultaneously displaying a charming facade. He’s so invested in what Katniss could become that he doesn’t see what he’s making her become until it’s too late and Sutherland does a wonderful job of maintaining that restrained menace.ID_D35_14123.dng

The supporting cast gives it their all even if their time is sparse. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch has returned to his alcoholic, yet still knowledgeable and caring ways while Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket finally comes around as more than just a typical representative of The Capitol. When she tries to express herself and breaks down at the thought of what Katniss and Peeta are being forced to do, she wins you over entirely. Lenny Kravitz returns as Cinna and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, bringing the right amount of subdued cool and over-the-top excitement respectively. Added to the cast are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, and Sam Clafin as Finnick Odair, a former winner of the games and possible ally. Hoffman is especially commendable for his performance. He’s unassuming in a way that makes you feel like you know who he is from the get-go right before he pulls a one-eighty and reveals his true colors. Filling out the cast are Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Jenna Malone as former winners out to help Katniss survive and fight back. If there’s one weak link, it’s probably Liam Hemsworth’s Gale. He doesn’t do much other than talk about fighting back and taking up space as the third member of a love triangle. Hopefully he’ll have more to do in the split Mockingjay movies.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one of those rare instances where the sequel outshines its predecessor, but a lot of that has to do with the actual success of The Hunger Games. Thankfully, Catching Fire learned from what didn’t work before and made the proper improvements. There’s less shaky cam, the effects are almost seamless, and there are some genuinely exciting and heart-wrenching moments. The only big gripe I’d really have is with the final reveal at the end, but you can make a case for a lot of the reasons why things happened the way they did. It just seems a bit farfetched, but you’ll have to be the judge on that when you see it for yourself.

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