High Caliber Acting and a Bigger Budget Make “Catching Fire” the Right Kind of Sequel

It’s time for another installment in the series that has both tween girls and 25-year-old guys squealing in excitement, so you know what that means – Katniss Everdeen must once again fight for her life in the dystopian future of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire!

The sequel to the 2012 hit, Catching Fire has Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) trying to survive by any means necessary as the co-victor of a tournament where teenagers are forced to kill one another by the tyrannical empire that rules the future. This time, she must contend with the dangers outside the arena. Of course, this being an ersatz version of the first film means that she will eventually be forced to once again fight for her life in the arena. Whether you enjoy the first story being repeated with some notable twist will heavily dictate your enjoyment of Catching Fire. Beyond the story, this film is a serious improvement over the first in terms of filmmaking quality.

Most notably, Lionsgate producers stepped up the budget big time for Catching Fire. Goodbye fake-looking genetically-modified pit bulls, hello somewhat-realistic-looking gigantic baboons! Also, they paid enough money to get a cinematographer who can hold the camera steady. Of course, this was done in the first film so we couldn’t see all those little kids sticking each other with swords. This time, it’s adults bashing each other’s heads in, not precious little ones, so it’s MPAA-approved. Director Francis Lawrence does a fine job filling the film with strong action sequences while still keeping a focus on the emotional content of it all, making this a fast and furious story that doesn’t slow down in any sense.

The film whips through a large portion of the novel, slicing off scenes in order to get to the tournament as quickly as possible. For the most part, this works, giving the story about a 50/50 split between Katniss’ new life as a victor and her desperate battle in an arena that is far more dangerous and dynamic than the first film. This choice makes the film’s two hours fly by while still preserving most of the important relationships. However, it also makes some of the ideas, like the revolution and the oppressive government, feel a little generic since there is less time spent showing what makes this story unlike other films in this genre.

Of course, what really makes these films great is Lawrence. She’s a fantastic actress and makes Katniss Everdeen a great character. Katniss can be quite difficult and is sometimes hard to relate to. She’s not a typical protagonist. Instead of propelling the narrative forward, she is simply trying to survive. Often, she is being used and stubbornly works against the better intentions of characters who would try to make a real difference in the world of Panem. In the hands of another actress, she could be infuriatingly stubborn or annoyingly ignorant.

Lawrence puts real soul into Katniss. She’s damaged yet strong, as she’s really only trying to protect the lives of the people she loves, no matter what she has to do. She’s really put through the wringer this time, both emotionally and physically, and she shows it. We want her to win, but we also pity her, a difficult balance that she pulls off with aplomb. She’s pulled in so many direction, between self-preservation and self-sacrifice, between the survival of her family and the survival of the nation, and between love interests.

On a side note, how can anyone be Team Gale? He’s a big dumb lug, who’s too busy getting flogged (spoilers!) to make a real difference. Plus he’s barely on screen, just like the last time. Peeta’s a far better choice. He’s sensitive, he’s artistic. Did you see that painting he did? He only had 10 minutes and it was beautiful! Surely, he’s a passionate yet sensitive man.

Anyway.

Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta both put on solid performances, with Hutcherson in particular doing some real heavy lifting in a few of the film’s most emotional scenes. Returning cast members Woody Harrelson (who makes every movie better), Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz are all welcomes sights as well, with each given some moments to shine.

Like the novel, one of the film’s strongest suits is the addition of new combatants in the arena that are far more interesting than most of the tributes in the first film. For the most part, the tributes in The Hunger Games were fairly one dimensional – evil career tributes who are Katniss’ biggest threat and misfits who are desperately trying to survive the game.

In Catching Fire, the tributes are previous winners, automatically giving them much richer backstories and more interesting personalities. Even the combatants only briefly glimpsed give the story a larger scale and a bigger canvas on which to paint. Sort of like how The Empire Strikes Back, gave Star Wars a much more epic feel by hinting at a larger world. Add in murky character motivations and a conspiracy that Katniss cannot figure out, and the film is given many more layers than the first installment.

These new characters (and those big bucks from the first film) also gave the producers of Catching Fire the chance to get some fresh blood and high quality talent, with each character being well portrayed by the actor or actress. Above all, Sam Claflin puts in a stellar performance as Finnick Odair, a cocky past winner who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. Finnick is charming yet dangerous, and both Katniss and the audience are never quite sure he is trustworthy. Clafin walks this line well, giving him real heart and believability while still being a magnetic presence on screen. Hey, DC Comics, make this guy Aquaman!

Catching Fire is chockablock with fan favorite characters, who each have an important part to play once the games begin. Thankfully, Jeffrey Wright, Lynn Cohen, Jena Malone, and more stay memorable as the returning tributes, which will help when the few who survive come back in the next film to play important roles. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a smart choice as new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Hoffman is an acclaimed actor, which is needed, since most of his scenes have him playing off of Sutherland in scenes added to the novel’s story to give greater insight into what is happening.

Speaking of The Empire Strikes Back, this is The Empire Strikes Back.

Our heroes are put in even greater danger as their enemy, a tyrannical empire, marshals its forces to undo the victory that was accomplished in the first film. New characters are brought in and the resistance gains movement even as it takes heavy losses. Like that film, Catching Fire is a satisfying story on its own, but is incomplete. If you have not read the series in its entirety and hate films that leave you waiting to see how the story wraps up, you may find yourself yelling in frustration at the end of Catching Fire.

But if you think the final installments in this series, the two-part Mockingjay, is going to be all Ewoks and lighthearted speeder chases, you’re in for a rude awakening. Catching Fire is a jaunty romp compared to what will come.

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