Review - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The second thrilling adaptation in The Hunger Games trilogy carries on the fine work started by its predecessor
Dir: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci. 12A cert, 146 min.
Here we go again: more bread, more circuses.
This leopard-lithe adaptation of the second novel from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy spirits us back to the classico-futurist kingdom of Panem, where teenagers win rations for their neighbours and loved ones by competing in a reality-televised fight to the death.
Since the events of the first film, Katniss Everdeen, the victor of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, has become a celebrity, role model and something approaching an icon. Her rise has been breakneck, although it runs spookily in tandem that of Jennifer Lawrence, the actress who plays her and whose own movie-star status has, in the intervening 16 months, been carved in granite.
And this means that for President Snow (a tinglingly malign Donald Sutherland) and the ruling classes of the Capitol, she has become a problem.
The Games were designed to serve as a distraction for the trodden-down, tyrannised residents of Panem’s outlying Districts, but Katniss’s rule-bending victory has made them itch for revolution.
During a victory tour with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a fellow competitor with whom she contrived a crowd-pleasing romance, there is unrest in the crowds.
Snow’s chief of manipulation-by-media, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), suggests a simple solution. Turn the people against their idol by drafting Katniss into a special, all-star Hunger Games, where she will be revealed as a treacherous, self-seeking false goddess.
Set against many intellectually bloodless teenage fantasies, this is as juicy as a cut of sirloin, and Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend), who assumes directorial duties from Gary Ross, does a fine job of balancing the film’s ruminations on individual freedom and state control with a charged, pacy narrative.
Meanwhile, Lawrence tears through the film like a cannonball. Her Katniss is all surface toughness and subterranean strife, until the second Panem’s television cameras start rolling, when she starts ladling on the caramel-gooey charm.
You can’t help but wonder if, while she filmed her interviews with Stanley Tucci’s wonderfully glutinous television compère, Lawrence’s mind ever flashed back to her incredibly successful red carpet blitz during last winter’s Oscar season – and I don’t think I will ever tire of the way Tucci pronounces Katniss’s surname, with the third syllable plopping out of his mouth as heavily as a snooker ball.
When the Games themselves get under way in a thrillingly unhinged tropical arena, filled with murderous baboons and banks of poisonous fog, the supporting cast of competitors is unveiled. Some of these make a bigger impression than others, but the most memorable – Jenna Malone’s axe-swinging gladiatrix, Sam Claflin’s laboratory-reared heart-throb – all seem to be aware that even with death close at hand, they are still playing characters for the cameras’ benefit, and the drama comes alive when the cracks between their true personalities and Games personas start to show.
But perhaps most satisfying of all is the chance to spend more time in the beguilingly oddball world that Collins and the film's production designers and costumiers have constructed. Elegant trains describe smooth, clean curves across Panem's mountainous landscapes as they whisk Katniss and Peeta between the Districts, which could almost be snow-dusted shtetls. Meanwhile, the Capitol teems with poseurs and fops, the queen bee of whom is Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the Games’ achingly earnest PR maven.
It’s a critic’s instinct to auto-praise any blockbuster that tries to do something different, but Catching Fire is so committed to carrying on the fine work started by its predecessor that the applause flows utterly naturally. Is it too soon t o say I can’t wait for the next one?