There has been a great deal of hype surrounding the release of the second film in the “Hunger Games” series, and it’s entirely justified.
Every so often, a sequel comes along that is better than the original, but is also a great stand-alone film in its own right. Still more rare is when that film is better than its source material. “Catching Fire” succeeds at all three of these things and manages to weave in more social commentary than the first movie.
The story picks up right where “The Hunger Games” left off. Teenage protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jenifer Lawrence) is still dealing with the after effects of winning the Games through preparing to participate in a suicide pact with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
The opening scene quickly sets the tone of Katniss’s mental state- a turkey she shoots morphs into the body of a contestant that she killed during the Games. Her post-traumatic stress disorder is evident from the beginning, as is Peeta’s.
Peeta still thinks that Katniss treated their star-crossed lovers romance as an act, and is resentful towards her for it.
As a part of their duties as Hunger Games victors, Katniss and Peeta must travel to all twelve districts of Panem doing publicity on behalf of the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
This publicity tour includes continuing to play up the love affair that saved their lives in the arena because Snow wants it that way. He threatens to kill Peeta and Katniss’s families if they do not comply. By making it seem that their victory in the Games was an act of love towards each other rather than an act of defiance towards the Capitol, the society’s class system can still remain.
However, Katniss and Peeta’s forced posturing creates riots throughout the twelve districts. An uprising is starting to smolder beneath the surface of peace, and the president is looking for every reason to kill Katniss and Peeta.
Snow is aided by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the new Head Gamesmaker for the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games known as the “Quarter Quell.” Plutarch finds a loophole in the rules and creates a new match-up of Quarter Quell contestants solely from past champions. Katniss and Peeta are once again thrown into the arena in another fight to the death.
Hoffman’s performance is the only one that is better than Lawrence’s here, and he does so much with his bit part. Lawrence has become a master at conveying emotions through facial expressions and body language, but that was a skill she already had before she won an Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook” (Other examples: the first “Hunger Games,” “Winter’s Bone.”)
The only problem with “Catching Fire” is that it is essentially two films in one.
The first film is all about political intrigue and the possibility of a citizen uprising. The second film is an action-fueled special effects extravaganza.
Both are equally intense, but the first half works better than the second half. The Games seem paint-by-numbers at this point, as if the audience knows that this is just an exercise to get to the climax of the film.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not suspenseful, though. I would assume that most of the film’s target audience has already read the books, and it’s no small feat to make the audience still feel suspense even though they know what’s coming.
It’s also worth noting that Katniss is treated like a real human being, not like a mopey teenage girl pining after two boys at once. The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still there, but it’s toned down and isn’t at the forefront of the story. “Catching Fire” shines in the moments that aren’t said. It shows and doesn’t tell.
So, Beer or Box Office? Box office. “Catching Fire” is the “Empire Strikes Back” or “Dark Knight” of this franchise. It’s darker and better than its predecessor; it stands alone in its own right, and just might be better than the next two installments in the series. Even if you haven’t read the books, make time to see this one.
Jake Harris is a senior journalism major at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.