★★★★ In the event that you, dear reader, aren’t familiar with the Hunger Games series, this film is not for you. Catching Fire spends no time attempting to bring its audience up to speed, nor should it. Instead of an obvious recap, we’re instead reminded of the events of the first film through small moments and touches that accentuate the emotion of scenes, rather than worrying about making sure newcomers can follow along.
We catch up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as she’s hunting in the forest that surrounds District 12. She seems at ease, but we quickly find out how heavily the events of the first film are weighing on her. A momentary flashback is enough to unsettle her to the point of tears and we remember, there are no winners of the Hunger Games, only survivors.
Though the events of the first film have been traumatic for Katniss and her family, life goes on as normal for the residents of District 12. The iron fist of the capital still keeps this mining district down and poverty is visible everywhere. Even the so called Victors Village, where Katniss now resides, can't provide refugee from the permanent melancholy that envelops the area.
As the winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) must travel from district to district making a brief appearances before they arrive in the capital. But at their first stop in District 11, they aren’t welcomed as they thought they would be.
District 11 has a heavy military presence. We quickly realize that the end of the 74th Hunger Games has had a dramatic impact on the population of Panem. It’s also at this first stop, that we’re reminded about the families of the competitors who did not survive. And when we see Rue's family, the emotion hits us hard. Without cheapening her memory the film brings back all the emotion of her death. It’s incredibly well crafted. Lesser hands could have made this a cheesy moment, but it’s a wonderfully moving scene.
The 74th Hunger Games have resulted in a spirit of rebellion that is buzzing underneath every district. It’s dangerous, but the people see hope in Katniss and Peeta, and are unabashed in their determination to change things, even if that means overthrowing the capital.
Emotions run high throughout the entire film. District 11 is where this movie really grabbed me by the throat and it didn’t let up until the 75th Hunger Games began. It’s the kind of emotional manipulation that doesn’t make you feel cheap afterwards.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the new gamemaker for the 75th Hunger Games and he’s excellent. Donald Sutherland is good as President Snow as well, but this film wouldn’t work without Jennifer Lawrence. She sells every emotional moment she needs to and is mesmerizing to watch.
I also really loved Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, host of the Hunger Games. He’s so over the top and fake with his phony smile, it'd be easy to write him off. But he plays the part with such earnestness that we believe every word without hesitation. He’s the embodiment of what a life in the Capital results in.
One thing I wish the film had done better is something I wanted more of in the first film as well. I wanted to see some of the general population watching the televised Hunger Games. Instead, the only outside look we get is when President Snow is watching with his granddaughter. She acts as the voice of the population, saying all the girls at school are wearing their hair like Katniss, and things like that. But without other voices, The 75th Hunger Games feels like it was put on for Snow’s personal amusement.
There are some great little moments that remind us this is set in the future by showing us small advances in technology. From the socially accepted liquid that makes you throw up so you can eat more food at parties, to the robotic cameras used to broadcast Katniss and Peeta's interviews, these details go a long way to paint a broader picture of the future. Katniss also has a great high tech archery training segment that shows she can still give Legolas a run for his money.
The 75th Hunger Games are more man vs. game than man vs. man. It’s a great shift for the series to take and keeps things new and interesting. However, meeting the other combatants is a bit like meeting the cast of a circus. There’s too many characters and they all become reduced to their dominant character traits. It's simply a problem with the movie being based on a book. There are too many important characters to give them all enough screen time to be fully realized. It’s the only place where the film stumbles a bit.
Catching Fire is an excellent sequel to The Hunger Games. The film is incredibly faithful to the book and it deserves all the credit for bringing it fully to life on screen. From the muted blues of District 12 to the over-saturated Capital, Catching Fire is one of the year’s best.