Last year, Jennifer Lawrence was just a promising actress with a few indie roles under her belt. “The Hunger Games” turned the young star into a global sensation. It also made Lionsgate—the production company behind the film—a fortune in the process. Now, the second chapter of the trilogy is storming into theaters. “Catching Fire” is every bit the sequel the original deserves. Upping the ante in almost every way, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) takes the reigns from previous headliner Gary Ross, and delivers an impressive feature film.
Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, this cinematic tour de force does not feel long winded at all, yet will more than earn the admiration of staunch book enthusiasts. By populating his film with a great ensemble cast, incredible special effects, and a story that is equal parts romance and action, “Catching Fire” is a must see motion picture for both hardcore fans and casual supports alike.
Without taking too much creative license, screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) and Michael deBruyn (Oblivion) remain loyal to Collins’ book. “Catching Fire” begins as Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) has returned safely after winning the 74th annual Hunger Games along with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Even though the two survived the bloody games, their nightmare has just begun. Winning means that the pair must leave their friends and family, and embark on a “Victors’ Tour” of the twelve Capital districts. Along the way, Katniss realizes that she has sparked a rebellion with her unconventional win in the arena.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland), however, is still very much in control of the Capital as everyone prepares for the 75th Annual Hunger Games. In honor of the special anniversary, Snow enlists new Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to craft an especially lethal arena for this year’s “Quarter Quell”—a competition that could change all of Panem forever. Plutarch and Snow both want Katniss dead, and by scheming to get her back into the Hunger Games battleground, they might have found a way to do just that.
Having won an Oscar last year for her performance in David O. Russell’s “Silver Lining Playbook,” Jennifer Lawrence could have returned to her starring role as Katniss with a whole lot of added arrogance. Instead, Lawrence commits herself fully to reprising Katniss. Whether she is piercing a “Hunger Games” opponent in the chest with an arrow, or snuggling up with either Peeta or her true love Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Lawrence’s excellent portrayal gives “Catching Fire” a certain sense of realism and believability.
The amazing supporting cast also goes a long way in giving Collins’ novel the Hollywood treatment it deserves. From returning co-stars like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) to newcomers Plutarch (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Beetee (Jeffery Wright), each A-list cast member adds another level of awesome to the already amazing story.
But beyond all of this great acting, the futuristic world of Panem is truly brought to life with the excellent production design and costuming by Phillip Messina (Traffic) and Trish Summerville (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). The grandiose lifestyle of Panem’s Capital City denizens is never more present in a character like Effie—Katniss’ publicist. Perpetually dressed in head to toe jewels and silks of every color imaginable, Elizabeth Banks (The 40-year-old Virgin) is unrecognizable as the over the top character. It’s a wonderful transformation to watch on screen. Stanley Tucci’s (The Devil Wears Prada) typically bald head is given a fantastic makeover as well. He steps inside the expensive shoes of the hilariously satirical talk show host Caesar Flickerman.
Francis Lawrence could have easily fallen for the same pitfalls that turned the “Twilight” series into a melodramatic teenage Soap Opera. The two series are very similar. Both star incredibly attractive people coming of age in tough circumstances. Lawrence, however, smartly puts romance on the back burner and significantly amps up the drama and violence. At its core, “The Hunger Games” is a story about survival—not love. The filmmaker pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable for a PG-13 movie constantly. He shows public murder, bloody whippings, and a Quarter Quell that is as epic in scope as it is deadly.
“Catching Fire” is a breathtaking cinematic experience—especially when seen in IMAX. Sadly, the only drawback is having to wait another year for the next installment to come out in theaters.
By David Morris