“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” asked John McClane in Die Hard 2, a winking nod to the audience that for sequels to even attempt to go bigger and better, they have to sacrifice anything resembling realism in the process. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire manages to pull off the rare feat of being far better than the original whilst still maintaining the basic principle of a sequel – in this case, the same shit happening to the same girl twice.
Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss Everdeen, who is now both the enemy of the state and the voice of the oppressed people after (obvious spoiler alert) winning the previous year’s games with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) via an act of defiance that almost qualifies as Shakespearean. With Katniss now seen as a figurehead for a revolution that could overthrow his dictatorship, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides that the only course of action is to announce a “Quarter Quell”- all of the previous games winners thrown back into the arena for an even more intense fight to the death.
For a film with such an action oriented premise, the first instalment of the franchise didn’t really deliver the spectacle, and we didn’t really get a chance to fully explore the future dystopia. Usually, a higher budget and a change of director (I Am Legend’s Francis Lawrence taking over from Gary Ross) spells disaster and a lack of narrative focus- here, it makes a significant improvement. The first hour of the film is spent almost entirely on Katniss and Peeta’s tour of the districts, giving us an insight into the full scale of the poverty suffered by the people of Panem (outside the capitol, obviously). The film also develops the characters far better; whereas in the first film I was longing for battle to commence, when Catching Fire lives up to its promise of big action (from a giant mechanical clock in the middle of the arena that delivers disaster every hour to literal gorillas in the mist) the setpieces it delivers come at the expense of intimate character moments that are far more engaging.
And what characters they are. Katniss Everdeen remains Lawrence’s best performance, something which will forever be overlooked by the Academy in favour of lesser work in films such as American Hustle which are far more acceptable to give awards to, and far less enjoyable overall. She is the most developed character in blockbuster movies, and with Catching Fire adding an element of political subversiveness that will follow through to the final instalments (Mockingjay is being split into two parts for the movies) it seems that it will remain this way.
When the film threatens to fall into clichéd love-triangle subplots that characterise other young adult novels and their adaptations, it never lasts long due to Katniss’ belief that in a life threatening situation, survival is far more important than any attempt at romance. A film like Twilight, which is comparable only because they share the same YA sub-genre, suggests that the main character’s problems can all be solved by the men in her life, and that love conquers all. Catching Fire almost qualifies as realism in the genre for its approach to love, and in Katniss’ world, she’s the one saving the men in her life, and not the other way round.
Catching Fire is impeccably entertaining, with more than enough substance to ensure it will be re-watched far more times than any other blockbuster franchise you’d care to mention. For now, let’s hope the same shit keeps happening.