It may have taken me two films into this series to realize it, but there a substantial difference between a Young Adult film (meaning one made for YAs) and a film about young adults that is geared more toward an older crowd. You can spot the differences in the character development and the themes of the three novels by Suzanne Collins versus, the TWILIGHT books/films (an easy target, I know). In the TWILIGHT material, love (in all its selfishness) matters most of all, even if it mean the deaths of so many good people. In THE HUNGER GAMES and even more so in this newest chapter, CATCHING FIRE, the lead heroine Katniss Everdeen (brought to soulful life by Jennifer Lawrence) does something that is almost unspeakable in the world of YA fiction: she pushes aside romantic entanglements from two fronts in the name of the greater good. Even Thor couldn't do that. And this makes Katniss one of the great, pure heroes in films right now.
There's no getting around the fact that THE HUNGER GAMES was about kids killing kids; that's the nature of the games and has been for 74 years under whatever twisted system of government exists in this world. The good news for those who were bothered by that concept is that CATCHING FIRE is more about all ages of tributes trying to wipe each other out. To celebrate the 75 annual Hunger Games (known as the Quarter Quell), President Snow (Donald Sutherland, looking like the evilest Santa) decides to bring back previous winners of the games to pit them against each other. He doesn't do this on a whim; he does it because suddenly thanks to Katniss' win stirring up a type of early-stage rebellion in some of the poorer districts has made any surviving tribute a source of inspiration, and therefore, a threat. What better way to kill most of them off then by pitting them against each other to the death.
One of the most fascinating concepts in the film is that none of this group of tributes wants to be there. In fact, they all thought they were exempt from ever having to go through this again. As a result, they bond together in protest, even as they are being paraded around the land like the Stanley Cup, to be oogled, pawed and admired by the masses. Once the Quarter Quell begins, the tributes seem more willing to for alliances with each other to stay alive and outsmart the new and far more deadly challenges set forth by new game-master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in full snake-charmer mode).
CATCHING FIRE picks up almost immediately after THE HUNGER GAMES, as Katniss and fellow winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing to take a victory tour all of the districts with their mentors--the drunken Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks)--all leading to a reception at the President's residence. But Katniss is clearing suffering from battle shock; more specifically, she's is haunted by the death she caused and the ones of her closest fellow tributes, like the young Rue.
At each of the districts, she and Peeta much pay tribute to the fighters from that district who died, and it pains Katniss to the point where she can barely spit the words out. On top of that, the President is convinced the people don't believe the romance between the pair, and demands that the couple up the public displays of affection, which leads to an impromptu engagement, much to the chagrin of Katniss' other love interest, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who is still back home working in the mines--although it becomes clear by the end of the film that his role will be greatly expanded in the two-part finale to this story, MOCKINGJAY.
As much as I enjoyed what director Gary Ross did with THE HUNGER GAMES, especially with the unenviable task of introducing so many characters and concepts to audiences, new director Francis Lawrence (I AM LEGEND, CONSTANTINE) is clearly enjoying the fact that he is able to dive right into the inherent drama of Katniss' emotional turbulence and her growing responsibility as a leader of a resistance that she barely knows exists. Pockets of rebels pop up at each public appearance of Katniss and Peeta, and peace keepers swarm in to crush them as quickly as they threw up their three-fingered salute. Some of the means by which citizens are punished for standing up against the government are exceedingly violent, but I give the film credit for not glossing over either the inherent violence of the games or this type of government.
Another aspect of CATCHING FIRE I found more intriguing than THE HUNGER GAMES are the tributes themselves. They are the best of the best, even if some of them are much older than Katniss and Peeta. I was ecstatic to see the likes of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as a pair of nerdy, eccentric former tributes who tend to use their brains more than fighting skills to advance. But my favorite new character is Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), who is just plain pissed most of the time. But she also serves as a one-woman cautionary tale for Katniss and what she might become if she doesn't think and act smart and keep her sanity during these new games.
These new characters add a bit of color and excitement to the story, far more than the old characters who seem designated to these roles. I still hate Stanley Tucci's announcer character Caesar Flickerman and Banks' Effie. These films don't need this overly broad comic relief and ridiculous-looking fops, and they certainly don't make the film any more interesting.
What's best about CATCHING FIRE is getting more of a behind-the-scenes glimpse into both the games and their aftermath, and how both are almost equally fake and pre-determined. President Snow wants to curb Katniss and turn her into a tool for his purposes, but when that clearly isn't going to happen, he turns to Heavensbee to rig the games against her surviving, and we see it all unfold (SPOILER!) unsuccessfully. I never read Collins' books, but I love the way this story ends on something of a cliffhanger that makes me cringe to think I have to wait another year for the next chapter in this story (and then another year after for the second part of the third chapter). I'm hooked, and knowing that director Lawrence will be returning for MOCKINGJAY is exciting news for dedicated and casual fans alike.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what a remarkable job Jennifer Lawrence is doing in these films. The story requires her to up her dramatic game as Katniss, and she surpasses all expectations this time around. After an Oscar win for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK last year, Lawrence didn't simply show up to fulfill a contractual obligation with CATCHING FIRE. She clearly loves this character and what she represents as an action hero and an outlet to vent against oppressive political structures. These films aren't exactly "message movies," but they aren't ignorant about propaganda, dirty tricks and dictatorships either. And Lawrence has shown up to envelop herself in all of it with a fire in her eyes and arrows at the ready. Katniss has many lives she's responsible for, and that's something that weighs on her heavily. And Lawrence wears that pressure the same way she wears her skin-tight battle suit.
CATCHING FIRE certainly has its moments of skillfully staged action sequences. But the actual Quarter Quell doesn't kick in until about 90 minutes into the 2.5-hour film. It's what happens in that first 90 minutes that makes the rest of the film feel so important and amount to more than just empty violence. The stakes feel so much higher because we know something about many of the tributes, and because the games have ramifications for so much outside of the arena. I wasn't expecting such an emotional journey with CATCHING FIRE, but the fact that emotions factor so prominently into this work make it a seriously thrilling experience.