Director: Francis Lawrence
For once, everyone seems to have got everything right. Whether it’s the quality of the source material, the charisma of Hollywood’s current Golden Girl Jennifer Lawrence, or the innovative and striking art direction, The Hunger Games ticks every box of exactly what a good franchise SHOULD be. It’s distinctive, thrilling, entertaining, thought-provoking, emotional… It’s taken niche dystopian literature and hurled it into the mainstream, with great aplomb and much success.
When the first film was released, there was much accusation that it was just an Americanised Battle Royale. The fundamental concept of the Games themselves is indeed very similar, but what sets this story apart from the Japanese hyper-violent masterpiece is the story that surrounds the Games. While Battle Royale takes place entirely within the confines of the arena, The Hunger Games places as much focus on the world outside as it does on the gimmick of the Games themselves. Indeed, the Games are once again the focal point for the plot in Catching Fire, but increasingly less so. It is the world of the Districts, the Capitol and President Snow’s despotic regime that takes centre stage now, so much so that aside from them being an exciting set-piece, the Games needn’t actually be there at all… Though what happens in the Games this time is fantastic narrative twist.
The world that was created in the first film comes into its own here. The contrast between the Capital and the Districts is explored both visually and through the action. We spend much time seeing the ramifications of the enormity of the previous film’s conclusion, which sets a tone of revolution, constant danger and political manipulation that is fully realised this time round. Suddenly these characters, whose lives had just been those of oppressed peasants before, have become national heroes, whose smallest actions and simplest words are loaded by the public with meaning and significance. To say that Katniss is a reluctant hero is an understatement; her drive to protect herself and her loved ones is what drives her through the film, but increasingly she realises that she is part of something much larger than herself; a mantel has been forced on her shoulders that she must come to terms with, and it’s Katniss’ journey toward becoming that hero that drives this second film.
Though the film’s central love triangle gets confusing at times, it doesn’t distract from the central plot. I doubt many people will be aligning themselves as Team Peeta or Team Gale unless they are Twilight-esque fanboys… Though for the record, I’m totally Team Peeta. The sweet and sensitive Hutcherson and the strong and hunky Hemsworth play off both sides of Lawrence, but we root for Peeta as much as we do Katniss and Hutcherson’s performance strides out confidently from behind the beacon of Lawrence’s stardom. In fact, for a film so dominated by its magnificent lead, the film is peppered with so many great supporting parts. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks both dazzle in their respective roles, while Donald Sutherland is given a lot more to do second time around. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s addition to the franchise gives it some welcome gravitas, even if it’s a role he could have performed in his sleep; and the same goes for Jeffrey Wright. Meanwhile, we may also be witnessing a star in the making with the dashingly handsome Sam Claflin delivering a delightfully charsmiatic performance as Finnick, another contestant in the Games.
The Hunger Games is a high-concept franchise and in Catching Fire you can really see the money Lionsgate have poured into it. But while the SFX may have improved in both scope and quality, it isn’t to the detriment of the original film’s artistic merit. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy or Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, there is a directorial vision behind these films that haven’t been swallowed up by the sanitisation of making palatable family-fayre. There are some bold directorial choices here and you can tell that some very talented people have been given freedom to explore this world. As a result, you have a beautiful movie, brimming with ideas. When Inception was released, there was an outcry amongst audiences and critics alike, demanding to know why all blockbusters couldn’t credit audiences with the same kind of intelligence as this. Well The Hunger Games does exactly that. We are being given 1984, A Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale rolled together and delivered as slick and intense high-octane thrillers. It’s been a very long time since I said this about a franchise, but I literally can’t WAIT for the next film.