The Hunger Games was hitting theaters way back in March 2013 and doing it well, earning over $400 million in the U.S. alone. Well, it is based off a trilogy by author Suzanne Collins and as good as the first entry was, the series certainly held a ton of promise going forward. The early returns for 2013's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were incredibly positive, earning over $300 million in just three weeks in theaters. Does it hold up to the pressure of the vaunted second movie in a trilogy sub-genre?
It's been several months since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) survived and won the 74th Annual Hunger Games, both struggling to cope with what they were able to survive. Their victory in the Games wasn't so simple or straightforward though. The Panem government is struggling to hold the Districts together, the people seeing that the government isn't so perfect, all of it caused by seeing Katniss and Peeta's defiance in almost choosing suicide rather than one of them winning the previous Hunger Games. While struggling through their own issues, the Game's winners are required to go on a victory tour, taking a train across the 12 districts until they finally end up in the Capital. With each passing district though, the defiance and unrest grows bigger and bigger, leaving Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland) little choice but to do something desperate in hopes of turning the tide in favor of the government.
SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Because I'm not sure who's read the books, who's seen the trailers, who's looked for possible spoilers, it is rather difficult to write this review without giving away a pretty major spoilers about where the story goes in the second half. Watching previews, it's pretty obvious what's going on, but I don't want to be the one blowing the surprise so be forewarned as you continue reading. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN
My personal favorite of the trilogy, I was very curious to see what director Francis Lawrence did with the series' second entry. The second film in a trilogy is pivotal, movies like Godfather 2 and Empire Strikes Back setting the bar pretty high. 'Fire' does a good job setting up where the series will go, the third book broken up into two separate features scheduled for 2014 and 2015. Almost across the board, we learn a lot more about all the characters, the disintegrating situation in Panem. If there's a weakness, it's that at 146 minutes, 'Fire' is a little long in the tooth. The first hour is a little slow-moving in setting everything up, laying everything out with the feel of duplication. It plays a lot like the first movie, scenes repeated, situations repeated almost word-for-word. Thankfully, that's not the entire movie. Things pick up near the hour-mark for the better, the momentum picking up and never slowing down until the final credits.
What is never in question -- and wasn't an issue in the first one -- is casting Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role here as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager living in Panem's District 12, the poorest of the districts. Coming off her Oscar-award winning performance from Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence adds to the development of Katniss, and for the better in a big way. She may be a teenager in years but in experience, she's a grown woman, questioning everything about what her life has become. Lawrence's Katniss still struggles with the spotlight, not understanding why she's being glorified for killing and surviving where so many others died. Her Katniss has become a hero, a beacon of the rebellion, a hope for something better, something she is quickly figuring out. Whether it be on-screen or just doing promotional interviews, Lawrence has a very natural, likable side, and she proves again why she was such an ideal casting choice to play Katniss.
All the other key players return as well, and with some new additions. I liked Peeta's development, Hutcherson capitalizing on a script that allows him something to do other than whine and look dreamily into Katniss' eyes. Sutherland too is spot-on, brimming with menacing intensity and trying to hold onto a tenuous grasp of his country. Also returning are Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the former District 12 winner and booze-addled mentor to Katniss and Peeta, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, the group's agent of sorts, promoting them while growing close to each, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, their stylist and Katniss' confidant, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the TV host of the televised Hunger Games, Toby Jones his partner. With so many characters, it'd be easy for some to get lost in the shuffle, but that's not the case here. Each supporting character gets his moment to shine, Harrelson and Banks taking Haymitch and Effie forward, Kravitz doing a fine job as Cinna, and Tucci is ever the scene-stealer as Caesar, able to produce a laugh or a harsher, more emotional moment almost at will.
Where 'Fire' hits its groove is near the hour-mark, and here come the SPOILERS. In hopes of squashing the symbol Katniss has become, President Snow has a twist in mind for the 75th Hunger Games, the Third Quarter Quell. The competitors will be two winners apiece from each District, Katniss and Peeta forced back into the arena, this time created by Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The setting looks like the South Pacific, a jungle-covered island with a lagoon in the middle, but there's countless twists and threats awaiting the competitors as they see who will be the last fighter standing. Much like the first movie, 'Fire' is at its strongest during the actual Hunger Games. There's something primal, exhilarating, profoundly dark and exciting about these sequences. As a bonus, we get to know more about the other Tributes -- far more than the original -- including Sam Claflin as Finnick, the ego-driven District 4 hero, Jena Malone as Johanna, the vicious, cynical fighter who isn't interested in public opinion, and Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, the squirrelly mechanical and engineering specialist.
Sure, there are weaknesses along the way, especially the sometimes sluggish first hour. Taken as a whole, it's a more than worthy follow-up in the series. If it's not the end-all, be-all second entry in the trilogy, it's still very good and more than lives up to the groundwork Collins set up with her second novel. The ending especially works, doing a great job ending on a cliffhanger that should propel the series right into the final two movies. What else to look for? Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss' quasi-boyfriend, and Willow Shields as Primrose, Katniss' younger sister, growing up at the most turbulent of times and maturing just as fast. And this time around, I noticed James Newton Howard's musical score far more, a worthy addition to the trilogy.
Where does this one stand? Fans of the series -- the books or the first film -- will no doubt enjoy this one. I liked it a lot, even loved the second half. I resent the three books being split into four movies, but like the rest of you jamokes, I'll be there when it hits theaters. 'Fire' does a very nice job setting things up, and I'm psyched for where things are going.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): ***/****