Last year moviegoers were introduced to an amazing new heroine in “The Hunger Games,” a film based upon the first book of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 trilogy. She is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence), and now she has returned in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second installment of the three and a sequel that is every bit as good as the original. Yes, you read that correctly.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the setting is an undefined time in the future in a place called Panem, which sprang up in North America after the virtual demise of civilization. The place comprises 12 Districts controlled by the Capitol presided over by an irrepressible dictator named Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).
In the first film we learned the genesis of The Hunger Games as stated in the Treaty of the Treason: “In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at public ‘Reaping.’ These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of the Capitol and then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death until a lone victor remains. Henceforth and forevermore the pageant shall be known as The Hunger Games.”
Although only one competitor is supposed to survive, Katniss managed to work things so that both she and her friend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) lived through the competition much to the anger and dismay of Snow. And that brings us to the sequel.
“Catching Fire,” begins as Katniss and Peeta are preparing for a victory tour of the country, but before they leave, President Snow pays Katniss a visit and tells her how displeased he is with what she did to save Peeta (They pretended to be lovers and forged a suicide pact.) at the end of the 74th Hunger Games and that it caused rebellion in the districts. He now orders her to convince him that their love for one another is not a ruse.
Although previous winners of the Hunger Games are supposed to be retired from competition and set for life, that’s not to be for Katniss and Peeta. Snow announces that because this is the 75th edition of the games, special rules apply so that the competitors are selected from the past winners instead of from among those who have never participated. Thus, Katniss and Peeta once again find themselves in war for survival, but this time their competitors are all past victors from previous games.
The pageantry leading up to the games is every bit as spectacular in this film as it was in the first one, and the special effects are consistently brilliant, especially in the scenes involving Katniss’s wardrobe and some of those in the jungle. The action also is electric, and it is once again a thrill to see Katniss in action. In the film’s production notes producer Nina Jacobson (“The Hunger Games”) explained what the filmmakers were hoping to achieve in the sequel.
“We wanted to be every bit as ambitious with this movie as we had been with the first, and continue to take creative risks. We have tried to honor the core essence of ‘Catching Fire’ in the same way that we honored ‘The Hunger Games.’”
Those who saw the first film will be pleased to know how many members of the cast returned to reprise their roles. Sutherland is back as the wonderfully nasty Snow, and Woody Harrelson once again is amusing as Haymitch Abernathy, the drunken mentor of Katniss and Peeta. Of course Katniss could not get along without Cinna, the stylist who creates all of her amazing clothes, and Lenny Kravitz is on hand to recreate that memorable role. Additional returning cast members include Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, who is perhaps Katniss’s one true love, and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, the evanescent public relations agent. And we can’t forget the marvelous Stanley Tucci, who is delightful as television host Caesar Flickerman.
The cast also includes some newcomers, and the most notable of these is the incomparable Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the gamemaker. Hoffman is one of the best in the business, and he brings a superb aura of treachery to the part of Heavensbee.
At the heart of this whole saga, however, is the character of Katniss, and Lawrence unquestionably owns her. Not much can be said about this brilliant young actress that hasn’t already been expressed, and her incredible talent is on display here as it has been in all the films she has made. In this movie we have the chance to see Katniss evolve and mature, and Jacobson addressed this in the production notes.
“We’re very excited in this film to advance Katniss’s evolution as a character. We see her growing into somebody who is much more the master of her own destiny, as opposed to a pawn in the agendas of others. We see an ethical and social consciousness awakened in her, and yet at the same time, we also see the very human resistance that she feels to having to become a hero, when all she really wants to do in her heart is go home.”
In addition to possessing an amazing range as an actress, Lawrence has the rare ability to communicate her thoughts and emotions without saying a word, and you can really see this in “Catching Fire.” Watch her face and her eyes, and you’ll see what I mean. Although she has played a number of very different roles in her career, Lawrence expressed her affection for Katniss in the production notes and also explained the new challenges facing the character.
“Katniss remains a character I adore but the stakes are different for her this time. In the first movie, she was a hesitant hero who really just wanted to save her family, but now she has a bigger weight on her shoulders. She feels a responsibility to all these people who are depending on her, and yet, she is struggling with that because it isn’t at all what she signed up for. I think Katniss was just starting to accept that she had post-traumatic stress and was trying to get over that, only now she has to face the unthinkable: going back to the Games.
“In ‘Catching Fire,’ Katniss becomes very aware of all the people who are watching her, who are depending on her, and that all becomes very real to her. She feels that she has to decide between saving her family or fighting for her people. These games are definitely different because everybody has been here before. Everybody’s experienced. This arena is something that Katniss has never experienced before. She grew up in the woods, so that was always her specialty. But this is all new to her — a jungle and a very sinister jungle at that. The jungle becomes a deadly tribute in itself.”
“Catching Fire” is a terrific sequel, and, like its predecessor, it gets an unequivocal 10. The final story in the trilogy is titled “Mockingjay,” and it has been divided into two films, one set for release in 2014, and the other, in 2015. With Lawrence as the star, there is no reason to expect anything less than perfection from them as well. Let the games continue!