When last we saw our post-apocalyptic heroes Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, they had foiled the dictatorial forces of Major League Bloodsports by threatening to commit suicide live on national TV, in a world where the forces of evil control the airwaves and have assured themselves that nothing can go wrong on live TV. This is a not-unrealistic alt-future in which Saturday Night Live and local newscasts are no longer around to remind them otherwise.
In the wake of success, the distressed duo live in larger homes in a gated community, but their only neighbor is their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, slightly less grungy here than in Out of the Furnace), the only other District 12 tribute to survive the Games. They receive all the food and money their families will ever need, but they’re still subject to the same local oppression as everyone else. They’re invited on a scenic tour of the other eleven Districts, where they’ll deliver inspirational speeches to captive audiences so that the Powers That Be can remind everyone how awesome life can be as long as no one gets uppity. A series of fiascoes gives the two pretend-lovers the impression that maybe Rue, Thresh, and the other casualties from the first movie were the lucky ones.
Within that framework of trophy appearances and gritted smiles, Peeta plays the straight man as much as possible while Katniss keeps stumbling into tiny little forms of rebellion — a heartfelt compliment that accidentally foments dissent; a wooden speech-reading that sparks audience anger; even her dresses are rubbing the government the wrong way, thanks in no small part to her personal designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, whose quiet dignity is almost unnoticeable until you realize minutes later what he’s just done). All throughout, Our Heroes’ very nemesis is the insidious nature of their post-game nationwide tour itself, spearheaded by the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland, doing what he does best) with a simple ultimatum: impress the audiences with their fame and convince them that life in PanEm is wonderful…or everything they hold dear is doomed.
When that doesn’t quite work, which is an obvious development, because post-apocalyptic strife rarely enforces a moral teaching of Conformity Is The Best Policy, then it’s time for the return of the Games. Thanks to a wicked suggestion from the new Gamemaster, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, awfully happy in his work), Katniss and Peeta find themselves dumped into the arena once more, faced by a new series of environmental challenges, surrounded by killers and mental cases, at a complete loss to spot a happy ending for miles in any direction.
This time around, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) rightly shifts the focus from the Games themselves to more world-building, more complexity between characters, and slightly more screen time for folks besides the young-adult foci. Liam Hemsworth returns as Gail to fill out the love triangle that continually frightens and confuses Katniss, raging as events keep unfolding against him. Sam Claflin isn’t forced into any love triangles as he was with Snow White and the Huntsman, instead juggling smarm and charm as tribute Finnick Odair, who’s as handy with a trident as he thinks he is with the ladies. Other standout tributes of high-power star wattage keep taking turns stealing scenes, whether it’s Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) as one kind of crazy, Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction‘s Honeybunny!) as a different kind of crazy, former Law & Order judge Lynn Cohen as the oldest surviving Hunger Games victor ever, or the always watchable Jeffrey Wright, whose entire resumé is made of underplayed scene-stealing. On the other side of the divide, Stanley Tucci once again mugs and prances about as the irrepressible Caesar Flickerman, that gloriously hammy TV host who treats life like one never-ending, overcaffeinated episode of Access Hollywood where stunning celebrity interviews are the meaning and purpose of life.
At the center of it all once again are Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, benefiting from a lot less shaky-cam and staying true to the characters’ respective natures as written in Suzanne Collins’ original novels. For Katniss this means alternating between bitter skepticism and outraged shell shock; for Peeta this means brusque dialogue and repressed, almost imperceptible yearning. For my money, both essentially nail the characters as written, though Hutcherson detractors who’d like to see any sign of life in him should stick around to see if he rises to the impending complications of Mockingjay.
I’ll admit I didn’t rush to theaters to see this, partly because, I’m not as excited about straightforward movie adaptations as I used to be. These days I’m more interested in being surprised by new interpretations than I am in scrutinizing a film with geek checklist in hand to grade it on whether or not they got the source material “right”, whatever that even means. Catching Fire, on the other hand, represents a solid example of an adaptation that takes some chances, delves into the less glamorous aspects of the source, and transforms them into the most interesting parts. When I read the novel shortly after The Hunger Games hit theaters, I was exasperated throughout its first half-plus, tapping my foot impatiently throughout the Victory Tour and wondering when we’d eventually get to their Battle Royale II. After watching the Victory Tour’s writ-large exploration of tyranny through entertainment, I was a little disappointed when it was time for CG threats and fight scenes. It’s almost as if there were a real Capital out there somewhere, ordering the author and filmmakers to end with super explodo action to wipe our contemplation away. Obviously The MAN didn’t sit all the way through his test screening, or else he’d realize the film’s final scenes perform the exact opposite.
To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Catching Fire end credits, though they do contain the largest picture of a peach I’ve seen in a movie since James and the Giant Peach, as part of an unmissable ad for Georgia’s film industry, who all want you to know Catching Fire is one of those rare films not shot in blasted Vancouver for a change.