With the first Hunger Games, many remarked that it was surprisingly violent for a young adult film. The second isn’t quite as violent, but it’s is surprisingly dark and gritty. Many wondered whether swapping director Gary Ross for Francis Lawrence would result in a more mainstream, Hollywood-ised tale, but instead it’s rather gone the other way, with a film that doesn’t pull its punches over the darkness and pain at its heart, or try to make its hero less flawed than she is.
The film picks up shortly after the end of the first movie. Hunger Games victors Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are back in District 12 and about to embark on their enforced Victory Tour. However all is not well in Panem and the way Katniss won has sparked rebellion in the Districts, many of which are starting to challenge the supremacy of the Capitol. As a result President Snow (Donald Sutherland) makes it clear to Katniss that he expects her to help qualm this. However she increasingly finds this is out of her hands.
Snow’s other main plan to squash the hope in the Districts have that they could take on the might on the Capitol is the 75th Hunger Games, where he announces that the contestants will be previous champions. This means that Katniss and Peeta must go back into the arena along with many well-known and powerful former winners – as well as those long past their prime. Snow believes that once people see Katniss forced to kill and then killed herself they will no longer view her as a source of hope Katniss herself is only concerned that Peeta will survive, but the other champions have a different and perhaps unexpected plan.
As with the book, Catching Fire has a pretty long setup before they get back into the arena. That could have resulted in it being a little dull, but the movie smartly concentrates on laying out exactly what is at stake and how all the different pieces affect this. It also ensures we know the brutality of the Capitol isn’t theoretical or restricted to the Hunger Games, and nor is it just about the misery of Katniss and those close to her. The first half of the movie is surprisingly powerful and often moving, expanding the scope of The Hunger Games and pulling you into deep into its world.
It also ensures that even when the special effects erupt (and there are quite a lot of them) and it becomes closer to what you would normally expect from a sci-fi action flick, there’s a level of grit that stays with it, whether Katniss and co. are taking on genetically altered monkeys or outrunning killer gas. It’s a good thing as without it the ending might have seemed a bit of a mess. There’s no time to explain things in the way the book could, which results in it all being a little confusing. It doesn’t matter too much as while the mechanics are slightly all over the place the gist and meaning is fully in place.
It all works extremely well and while many were surprised by how good the first film was, it’s even more surprising that the sequel is even better. Much of the credit has to go to whoever was in charge of casting, as Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely superb at the film’s heart, aided by a very strong Josh Hutcherson and the wonderfully oily and dangerous Donald Sutherland. The numerous supporting characters are also given their moment to shine, such as Elizabeth Banks OTT Effie Trinket showing another side to herself, and Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna offering a couple of the movie’s most powerful moments. That’s not to mention Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, who offers a bit of light relief and darkness all at once.
It’s a great film and Lionsgate has ensured that those going for the two-disc Blu-ray edition won’t be disappointed. The movie look awesome in HD, with the picture really bringing out the excess of the Capitol, the humidity and danger of the Jungle and even wonderful micro-expressions on Jennifer Lawrence’s face. That’s backed up by an extremely good surround sound mix.
There are also some decent special features, including an interesting filmmaker commentary and a few deleted scenes – some of which fans of the book may remember. The second disc includes a series of ‘making of…’ featurettes, which are all pretty good with plenty of interviews with the cast and crew. However while what’s included is good, particularly the talk about how they approached adapting the sequel, it’s difficult not to wish there was a little more of it.
It’s the film that’s the star here though, and that is excellent.
Overall Verdict: An excellent follow-up to a very good movie, which injects plenty of grit to ensure that what is essentially effects-heavy action sci-fi feels very human and surprisingly moving.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac