ByOn the Screen Review, writer at
On the Screen Review

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire proved not only to be a financial goliath raking in a record-breaking $110 million Thanksgiving haul, but raised a relevant question—when was the last time a sequel was this good?

As a movie sequel, Catching Fire proves to have as much punch (if not more) than The Hunger Games. The next chapter in the sci-fi young adult franchise delivers a broader and more layered reality of Panem jumping deeper into the darker territory of a tightly woven, government-controlled civilization bound to their gladiator-inspired Hunger Games. Not only do we get a greater sense of the mental and physical prison victors Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) exist in, but also the gravity of their defiance.

Katniss Everdeen’s defiance has become a symbol of revolution among the fragmented 12 districts of Panem. Despite assuring President Snow that she is not a leader, the public image of Katniss is lauded—it becomes clear on the Victory Tour, a district-to-district tour publicly acknowledging the fallen victors of the previous Hunger Games, that pulling the plug on Katniss would launch her into martyrdom before wiping away the memory of her defiance. The media control of the districts becomes thin as impoverished residents peacefully (and violently) mark their discontent for the Capitol. During the end of the Victory Tour, President Snow announces a new decree for the 75th Hunger Games. The Quarter Quell will reap previous victors from each District in hopes to indirectly eliminate Katniss.

Another jump back into the games makes you question if this movie will have more to offer than the first or if will feel like deja vu? With an impressive 8.2 score on IMDB and an 89% (out of 225 reviews) on Rotten Tomatoes, the sequel offers much more depth and dimension to chew on. Here are my highlights:

The Jennifer Lawrence Effect

“Because of her, they all pose a threat. Because of her, they all think they’re invisible.”

The girl on fire couldn’t be a more appropriate tagline for Katniss Everdeen, but more appropriately for Jennifer Lawrence. Like her character, the actress seems to be unstoppable, and the A-list movie scripts keep sliding her way. What’s great about Jennifer Lawrence in this role is that she can act, and she doesn’t need to drop her clothes to encompass a level of beauty in this role that both men and women alike can appreciate.

It’s rare for a film to be supported on the shoulders of a strong female lead, let alone a three-part young adult franchise. Not since powerhouse heroines like Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley have audiences really seen a female bring such box office success. The appeal of Katniss relies on her relatable attitude as the anti-hero not adequately prepared for her fame among the districts and her infamy at the Capitol. The desperation and fear is palpable when Katniss pleads with Haymitch to help her get through the Victory Tour. His response, “You will never get off this train…you’re a mentor now” slaps us as unforgivingly as it does Katniss.

And who better to stab at our emotions than Jennifer Lawrence? Chloë Moretz, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Saoirse Ronan were among the few considered for the role of Katniss–shoes none of these ladies are capable of filling.

Understanding Casting Choice–Josh Hutcherson

Finally! We’ve found a franchise that isn’t reliant on unlocking a love triangle, but is more fascinated with what matters–character survival.

The Onion ran a hilarious video outlining why “average-looking” Josh Hutcherson was a poor casting choice for the franchise, because “Katniss would never choose him…he’s just not hot.” The superficial debate is an understandable chuckle if you’re watching the first film (it seems production made an impromptu aesthetic choice to dye Josh Hutcherson’s hair more natural blonde and less like someone peed on his head). What we learn in Catching Fire is that Josh Hutcherson is the perfect casting choice for District 12 baker extraordinaire Peeta Mellark. Unlike the laughable casting choices of previous young adult franchise Twilight, The Hunger Games franchise opted out of casting the six pack abs, good looking actors with mediocre acting potential. Peeta isn’t meant to be an eye-catching, scene stealer who would be high ranking on the Darwinist totem pole of hunks—he’s an average guy randomly selected in the reaping. Catching Fire further reveals that Katniss is the stronger of the duo, and Peeta isn’t a strong victor. So reverting back to the casting choice, Josh Hutcherson embodies exactly who Peeta is meant to be on an aesthetic scale and character scale. Whether or not Katniss chooses Peeta or Gale in the love triangle is refreshingly irrelevant to viewers in this second installment. What we want to see more is survival and triumph over who Katniss should romantically choose.

Effie Trinket — Character Development

Effie Trinket, the cotton candy haired Capitol representative for District 12 whose costumes speak louder than words, represents the frivolity and excesses that the 1% of Panem possesses. Effie doesn’t stray beyond one-dimensional comical fluff in the first film as she bounces around stressing the importance of etiquette and manners. To Effie the Hunger Games are routine, a yearly competition that is considered a privilege rather than a death sentence. Effie’s initial existence as a character poses as merely comical relief, but her involvement in Catching Fire takes a surprising shift in character development well-achieved by Elizabeth Banks.

Effie’s pastel prism that she hides behind noticeably cracks at the reaping when she chooses her victors back into the game. The dynamic has shifted as Effie’s moral conscious comes crashing down revealing, “You both deserved so much better than this.” Instead of relishing in her duties, she crumbles realizing that this isn’t fair. They’ve transformed from separate entities working together to an all for one one for all team.

Johanna Mason–Scene Stealer

“I don’t care if you got knocked up. I can still rip your throat out.”

Did any tributes really stand out in the first Hunger Games? Rue was sweet, Cato was a merciless douche, but none of them really stole our attention the way Jena Malone did as Johanna Mason. While the film doesn’t put any effort in clueing us in on the tributes not part of the alliance (brother-sister duo, sharpened teeth girl), the film highlights that Johanna is one pissed broad, and she’s not taking this Quarter Quell lightly.

Johanna Mason is the victor of the 71st Hunger Games from District 7 who won the game by coming across as a weak competitor when in reality she was sly and cunning. As Katniss describes her in the book, “she has a wicked ability to murder.” There’s nothing more delightful than having a character in the midst of madness willingly shove the middle finger at authority, and Jena Malone exudes the appropriate amount of fearlessness and contempt that makes her the scene stealer of Catching Fire.

The Games are Deadlier

“I want you guys to forget everything you think you know about the games. Last year was child’s play. This year, you’re dealing with all experienced killers.”

Not only are the victors dealing with experienced killers, but they’re caught in a lethal jungle gym constructed by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who replaced Seneca Crane from the previous games.

The last Hunger Games seemed like child’s play in construction over competitors—the arena set in the forest looked like the Capitol was budgeting the games in their own backyard. Falling trees, lethal wasps and random forest fires were among the challenges the competitors faced; all frightening for audiences unfamiliar with the games. But Catching Fire offers a tropic arena with a greater sense of mystery in this uncharted territory giving audiences a more visual world of what the Capitol is capable of creating.

Catching Fire offers more strengths than what’s listed above, and it will prove to be one of the biggest surprises of 2013. Go see it!


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