“Remember who the real enemy is”
The aspect author Suzanne Collins included in Catching Fire that was more or less absent in The Hunger Games can be summed up with the above quote. While Panem’s dystopia provided a common antagonist for the surviving twelve districts of a revolution their Capital won seventy-four years previous, the series’ first installment relied almost exclusively upon whether its heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) would survive her adversaries in the titular games. Yes, the political unrest was at the constructed mythology’s back, but the ultimate goal concerned events inside the arena. As her defiant, suicidal stunt with poisonous berries forced an unprecedented co-victor situation, however, the stakes became larger than twenty-four kids fighting to the death. It gave the defeated rabble watching at home inspiration to once more battle for their freedom.
This is key because the second and third entries—like most trilogies—cannot exist on their own. Unlike The Hunger Games finishing with an autonomous victory, Catching Fire must lead into Mockingjay with a cliffhanger. Collins therefore builds her sequel as a quasi-reboot of its predecessor; placing its identical plot points in the background so the social strife could now earn the more prominent role. When the tributes arrive at the Quarter Quell (a special 75th anniversary Games wherein the rules are at the whim of Donald Sutherland‘s President Snow and Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s new gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee), it’s less about the result than who’s involved. Needing to eradicate Katniss’ unwitting heroine, the Capital chose this year’s victims from the existing victors pool. Since Ms. Everdeen was District 12’s first female winner, she has no choice but to return.
Credit screenwriter Michael Arndt (Simon Beaufoy wrote the initial two drafts before exiting with director Gary Ross) for understanding the importance of introducing this larger theme of revolution because it proves crucial to the series’ fantastic, tonally divergent finale. In lesser hands this is a producer’s dream to recreate what worked in 2012 for repeated box office glory. Arndt thankfully understood how the Games themselves were merely a setting for a new alliance between tributes this time around—Katniss and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) celebrity adoration teaming with Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress’ (Amanda Plummer) technical know-how, Johanna Mason’s (Jena Malone) cutthroat brutality, and pretty-boy Finnick Odair’s (Sam Claflin) deceptive wiles. As The Hunger Games threw out the novel’s first-person narrative solely from Katniss’ perspective, Catching Fire expands it further to show she’s not alone in her anger.
So don’t be discouraged with the stories’ similar frameworks. While this begins with Katniss and best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting in the woods of District 12, there is now an underlying friction from his having had to watch her romance Peeta on TV despite believing he and she may have one time lived happily ever after. And while we return to the Games, we don’t languish in practices or fish-out-of-water emotions thanks to the Quarter Quell’s unpopular twist. This year the preparations retain their tinge of vitriol, but it’s not directed at each other. Those readying for the Games have been there before and won. Harboring no misgivings as far as knowing only one can survive, they’re also not going to forget their universal injustice until entering the arena if it can possibly cancel the proceedings.
Everything’s rightfully steeped with the rage of a people who have been wronged. Every maneuver onscreen holding two meanings: one in how it affects the character and one for its impact on those watching. President Snow knows that while the Capital saw Katniss exit the arena as one half of Panem’s new “It” couple for love, everyone in the Districts saw her as a rebel who made him look less than omnipotent. And if he can’t use her as the symbol to keep everyone in line, he’ll be sure to do whatever’s necessary to transform her into a distant memory of hope and a fresh one of fear for anyone opposing his rule. Every step towards the arena therefore also holds one for the progressing revolution fought off-camera, each step inside the arena part of an even bigger game.
But that’s what’s great about this installment—it’s palpable sense of evolution from the first. Whether Prim (Willow Shields) shedding the skin of a scared little girl unprepared for the arena for a steady-handed caretaker keeping her mother safe while Katniss was away; flamboyant, self-centered Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) not only enjoying her position as escort to champions, but finding emotions and love for her tributes and sorrow for their struggles; or eccentric showman Casear Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) realizing his once jovially fluffy TV program was now a conduit for dangerous imagery, this world has been irrevocably altered. Credit director Francis Lawrence (a guy better-suited to the genre than Ross despite his success in the position) for finding that darkness and letting the victory smiles turn into appropriately dour frowns.
I didn’t get to see the IMAX presentation—the entire arena segment was shot in the larger format to really enhance its separation from the world watching—but the experience is no less impactful in widescreen. The pie piece-segmented jungle is rendered beautifully and accurately to its literary counterpart with vicious lightning storms, carnivorous monkey muttations, and Jabberjay screams; the government takeover of 12 with Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) is soul-suckingly stark and brutal; and every powerfully emotive moment from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Katniss’ good-bye to hers and Peeta’s final “show” for Heavensbee remains intact. And while aspects like the Avoxes, the victor’s “talents”, and those two girls from 13 are excusably absent, Hoffman’s Plutarch is thankfully changed in a way that makes his role as Gamesmaker much more opaque.
The casting of Malone, Claflin, Plummer, and especially Wright is spot-on with each shedding celebrity preconceptions to embody their conflicted challengers. Each has sadness behind their more publicly gregarious personas—a biting hatred for their circumstances and a common experiential mindset as the only ones who’ve survived the carnage they’re made to endure. Sutherland somehow exudes his not so subtle villainy with deft nuance, making you smell the mix of blood and roses Collins so viscerally elicited in the book; Woody Harrelson‘s Haymitch begins to sober up with sarcasm intact; and Hutcherson proves he’s able to play Peeta’s myriad emotions (although his true acting test is still to come). But it’s Jennifer Lawrence who soars with a mix of incredulity, helplessness, and bravery. Selfish and aloof, she’s not the obvious choice for leader but they follow her nonetheless.
 Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Photo Credit: Murray Close
 Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, left) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, right) in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Photo credit: Murray Close
 Liam Hemsworth stars as ‘Gale Hawthorne’ in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Photo credit: Murray Close