The Capitol Strikes Back

Plenty of people expected Francis Lawrence’s Catching Fire, the sequel to last year’s The Hunger Games, to make a lot of money. And it did. The film made over $160 million in its first weekend, surpassing The Dark Knight Rises to claim the highest 2D opening of all time. What nobody seems to have expected is that it’s also a tremendously good movie.

The audience for these Young Adult franchises is always split between who read the books and who didn’t. I’m a big fan of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic book trilogy, and I felt pretty lukewarm about the first film. Director Gary Ross provided a faithful adaptation with mostly inspired casting, but there was something missing. The world of Panem and its horrific Hunger Games tradition, where 12 sets of children from 12 futuristic districts fight to the death in a manufactured arena on live television, just didn’t seem fully formed. I wasn’t too hopeful that the next director, Francis Lawrence, could do any better. The guy who did Constantine, I am Legend, and Water for Elephants? Not the most staggering resume.

Yet I was excited by a comment I read on Entertainment Weekly‘s website, where a user claimed that the movie was so good it made her wish she had never read the book so she could fully appreciate the surprises. I can almost guarantee that if you are a fan of Catching Fire the novel, you are likely to feel the same way. Justin Chang from Variety wrote an excellent article on how Lawrence’s film is actually superior to Collins’ book, and how that’s not a criticism of Collins as a writer. Her writing is effortlessly cinematic in that she can convey vivid images and detailed action scenes with just a few short sentences. Lawrence has taken the raw meat and vegetables of the book and created a cinematic feast of color and flavor.

Catching Fire finds Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) readjusting to their life in District 12 after their unprecedented victory in the Games. Like its source material, the film never shies away from the pair’s obvious trauma, and both actors do a formidable job of showing just how strikingly their characters have changed. Hutcherson, in particular, the most glaringly miscast of the principle actors, has grown into the role of Peeta nicely and infuses an oddly passive character with wisdom and warmth. Katniss learns early on from Donald Sutherland’s President Snow that she is unwittingly sparking a rebellion. Her task is to convince the masses of her phony love affair with Peeta, which is turning out to be not so phony after all.

That’s where the source material can be tricky. Catching Fire is undoubtedly written for teenage readers–a sort of thinking teen’s Twilight–and its adherence to YA conventions can seem at odds with its more sophisticated and harrowing concepts. You often feel like this story deserves much more than to rest on the shoulders of a young love triangle. That’s what makes Lawrence’s directing even more impressive. He manages to elevate these conventions so they seem less jarring than they do in the book. When President Snow shows Katniss the recording of her kissing Gale (Liam Hemsworth), it becomes less about her flirtations with two boys and more about the fact that this man could kill everyone she loves.

If I could level one criticism at Catching Fire, it would be the pacing. Once Katniss and Peeta are sent back to the arena for the Quarter Quell, an all-stars Hunger Games of past victors, the film becomes an embarrassment of riches in the form of brilliant supporting actors. That’s how you can tell this is no Twilight. The Hunger Games trilogy attracts amazing talent, and it would serve them best to get to it as soon as possible. Old favorites from the first film like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Stanley Tucci do even finer work in this one. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, and his scenes with Sutherland are wicked and delightful to watch. And the tributes! Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are spot-on as genius technology whizzes Beetee and Wiress. English actor Sam Claflin proves why they cast him as Finnick Odair even if he is not as tall and beefy as the Adonis-like character is described. He turns Finnick into a real character role, breathing life and soul into one of the series’ best supporting players. Jena Malone is equally awesome as Johanna Mason. There are few actresses who could have tapped into such rage and attitude and remained authentic and likable.

Luckily most of these characters will get more time in the spotlight in Mockingjay: Part I, set for release in November of next year. And since Lawrence is back as director, it’s not as annoying as it might be that the final chapter of a franchise is once again split into two to rake in more money. At least we can have faith that everyone involved might make it well worth our while.