The second instalment of the Hunger Games franchise is a definite improvement on its predecessor. This is a darker, more mature film which accentuates yet further the Orwellian elements in the Suzanne Collins novels from which it is adapted.
It benefits from another full-blooded performance from Jennifer Lawrence as the tough, single-minded warrior heroine, Katniss Everdeen. There is strong support, too, from a cast which now includes Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the duplicitous new “gamesmaker.” It’s just a pity that when battle finally commences, you again have the feeling you’re watching a bloodier version of It’s A Knockout – a glorified Outward Bound-style games show rather than a proper movie.
As the story begins, Katniss is back home in District 12 after winning the 74th Hunger Games. Her family and the other inhabits of the District still live in abject poverty. The ruthless and cynical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), wants her to go on a “victory tour” and to try to fool the masses that she is deeply in love with her co-survivor from the Games, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson.)
Francis Lawrence (taking over directorial duties from Gary Ross) accentuates the brutality in the early scenes. President Snow is a fascist leader. His military are ready to use the most extreme tactics to suppress any hint of revolutionary fervour. Katniss is in the unfortunate position of being a poster girl for a regime she loathes.
As a dystopian sci-fi yarn, Catching Fire is – initially – effective and chilling. The imagery of district dwellers being rounded up and massacred seems intended to evoke memories of Nazi atrocities. The screenplay, co-written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire and The Full Monty) has a strong satirical undertow. The fascist state uses the media in general – and reality TV game shows in particular – to keep the masses distracted.
The supporting cast clearly enjoy themselves. Stanley Tucci plays the game show host with extreme unctuous creepiness. Sutherland is good value as the sleekly evil, beard-stroking President. Elizabeth Banks behaves with the right mix of vanity and vacuousness as Katniss’s absurd chaperone, Effie Trinket.
Strangely, when the long awaited Hunger Games start, the film loses steam. There are still some tremendous special effects – toxic mist, mutant monkeys with a taste for flesh – but the storytelling becomes muddled. Katniss remains at the heart of the action, using her bow and arrow to explosive effect, even as we struggle to work out who survived, who is dead, who is killing who, what is happening – and why. (All will doubtless become clear in the next film.)
It is heartening to find a teen-oriented movie franchise as gritty as The Hunger Games. Even so, Catching Fire remains contradictory, caught in some nether world between nightmarish political allegory and adolescent escapism.