The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)

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Like most, I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the first film in the latest of a long, distinguished line of megafranchises based on Young Adult novels. Fast-paced, smart and surprisingly edgy for a big family blockbuster, it borrowed liberally from predecessors such as Battle Royale and the Running Man books Stephen King wrote under the name Richard Bachmann without ever ripping them off, crafting an original story out of well-worn ideas. Those who have accused Susanne Collins’s novels of watering down their darker, more violent predecessors have confused grit with maturity – The Hunger Games Trilogy may be more tame in its depiction of violence, but it’s far more potent thematically and better plotted – Battle Royale may have more style, but The Hunger Games actually kind of makes sense.

But for all its great ideas, little in The Hunger Games worked quite as well as one wished. The oligarchy that rules over the masses known as “The Capitol” appeared evil but never really felt it, the games themselves were dangerous but the “tributes” forced to take part of them were curiously anonymous, and Jennifer Lawrence, delivering a fantastic, earthy performance as always, wasn’t given enough to work with by the doggedly faithful script by Gary Ross. Most view the second book in the trilogy as a weak rehash of the first, and the majority of the critics who were kind to the first film followed suit, calling its sequel, Catching Fire, more of the same.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes its subtitle to heart, lighting a fuse underneath the franchise. Everything that fell flat in the first film really sings her; the world of Panem is given more time to develop and grow, the new tributes given far more personality, the script putting character and overarching plot first and foremost rather and letting its action sequences develop from them. The film does act as a bridge between the exposition of The Hunger Games and the war that will follow in Mockingjay, but it does so with aplomb, upping the stakes incredibly and introducing the first stirrings of revolution with a remarkable emotional sensitivity. Its first, pre-games hour is full of thrilling moments in which we realise how powerless the people of Panem are against the Capitol, how keenly everyone can sense the change that is coming and how sorely it is needed.

The games themselves may be more of the same, but they are a huge improvement technically. New director Francis Lawrence does away with the shakycam that plagued the first film, puts more focus on the traps and pitfalls that besiege the arena, wisely downplaying the supposed dog-eat-dog nature of the games that worked in the first film but doesn’t quite gel with the everyman uprising that comes into focus in this installment.Villain characters are almost entirely anonymous and almost entirely absent, replaced by the real villain of the Capitol, and the tributes themselves – hard, kind, resilient, capable, and headed by the welcome return of Jena Malone to the big screen absolutely nailing every second she’s on screen – become something of an ensemble, each one playing a role and injected with more personality than all of the tributes in the first film put together. Elsewhere, character’s like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee (his tragic death means he’ll have to be digitally inserted into the last film) adds intrigue, and the returning Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are given ample opportunity to shine.

Not everything works – the whole “which boy will Katniss choose” subplot is still completely moot because of them are incredibly wet and utterly superfluous: Peeta is just there to tag along with Katniss and Gale exists so people can threaten Katniss with his death, but she works better as a lone wolf and she has her sister, so there’s no real reason for either of them to exist. It was a problem that existed in the books that they’ve carried over simply because of the sad fact that a woman in modern films isn’t allowed to stand alone, even if she means she has to carry around two dead weights. Thankfully though, it doesn’t detract much from Catching Fire’s myriad thrills. Where most contemporary blockbusters phone it in, Katniss and company shoot straight for the gut.

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