While young adult (or YA for short) novels have been all the rage over the last couple of years in Hollywood, unfortunately most of them usually end up being either mediocre or terrible films. Luckily there was film based on a YA novel that has actually produced a really good quality film and that, of course, is THE HUNGER GAMES. When it came out last year, I wasn’t sure to expect from it but it did sound very intriguing nonetheless. After watching it, I was very surprised how great of a film it turned out to be and I was definitely very much looking forward to the follow-up THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. So did this sequel turn out to be just as good if not better than the first film? Read on and I’ll tell you!
Set after the events of first film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) try to get back to their normal lives at District 12 after surviving the 74th annual Hunger Games. Not long after returning home, they find out that they have to do a Victory Tour of the other Districts to celebrated their win. As she goes from District to Disctrict, Katniss starts to notice that a rebellion is starting to form. Fearing that their win is sparking a revolution, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) with help of new gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) come up with a plan to eliminate her and Peeta. For the 75th annual Hunger Games which also marks 3rd Quarter Quell (a special event that occurs every 25 years), the tributes for this event will be reaped from previous winners of the games. To their horror, Katniss and Peeta discover they will have to battle in the Hunger Games once more.
Now there is actually a lot more to the plot than what I just wrote but I won’t reveal anymore since that there are aspects of the story that I don’t want to give away. However what I will say is that THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is an absolutely terrific sequel. I believe the main reason for that was the change in director. While I understand why some people didn’t like some of the directorial choices made Gary Ross in the first film (the use of shaky-cam being the main one), but I personally thought he did a great job at establishing both the look and tone of this world. While I was a bit disappointed that he decided not to come back but I thought that the studio found a really good substitute for the sequel with Francis Lawrence (no relation to lead star Jennifer Lawrence), a director whose films I’ve quite liked (he previously made CONSTANTINE, I AM LEGEND and the underrated WATER FOR ELEPHANTS).
I have to say I thought that Lawrence did a great job here and while he’s direction is much more visually stylish than Ross’s was, but he was still able to capture both it tone and feel of the first one rather effectively. He also gives the sequel a more epic scope and scale that I thought the first film lacked a bit of (although it probably helped that had a bigger budget than the first one had) and his direction of the action sequences is better handled as well. For those who hated the use of shaky-cam in the first film, I’m happy to report that it’s hardly used at all in this one. But it when is, it’s done in a way where you can actually see what’s going on. One of the reasons why I love the film is that, unlike most films based on YA novels, is has a lot more weight to it on both an emotional and thematic level. It explores some really interesting themes and ideas (society, the government, the rich, the poor, celebrity, media etc.) without it ever feeling heavy-handed or blunt. I don’t think you’ll really blockbuster film series that suppose to be aiming at teenagers that effectively tackles this themes quite well.
Also it helps that has a great central character at the heart of it with Katniss Everdeen, who is one of the strongest and most compelling female characters we’ve had in films in quite a long time, especially in a big blockbuster film like this (see Stephanie Myer, this is *how* you make an interesting female character). Just like in the first film, Jennifer Lawrence gives another truly fantastic performance and she brings so much to the role that makes Katniss a well-rounded three-dimensional leading character. Plus she is backed by a great supporting cast. All the returning cast (Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland etc.) are do a great job once again with their performances and their characters are even more developed this time around (“Effie Trinket”, played by Elizabeth Banks, is one character who definitely benefits from this. We get some sides to her that we didn’t see in the first film).
But for me, the stand out was Donald Sutherland who was terrific as “President Snow”. He gets a lot more screen time in this film and we get to see how much of a sinister character he is. He would’ve easily have been played over-the-top but takes a subtle approach to the role that makes performance even more effective. The new cast members (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Caflin, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen) were also quite good in their roles as well. The stand-out for me was definitely Malone, who gave a terrific and memorable performance as “Johanna Mason” (she also has one of the best character introductions ever. How so? You’ll have to see to find out). Also the screenplay by Oscar-winning writers Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 127 HOURS) and Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, TOY STORY 3) is extremely well written, the score by James Newton Howard is great as usual (I must admit I miss the approach that he took with the first film’s score), the cinematography was both stylish and atmospheric, the production/costume designs were fantastic as usual and the soundtrack is terrific.
However despite my many positives about the film, I do think that it does suffer from a couple of flaws. While some elements of the story are done differently, I felt that it’s structure was too much of a rehash of the first film’s plot (although it does occasionally put a new spin on things we’ve seen before, especially in the 3rd act.) and even though the CGI was done extremely well, unfortunately there was a scene involving some CGI baboons (don’t ask) that I didn’t think really worked and the scene went on longer than necessary. Also I thought that some of the new characters that introduced in the film were a bit underdeveloped, especially the ones who died (I think if the filmmakers developed them more, their deaths probably would have a had a bigger impact). Plus the pacing can be a little bit slow at times and I felt that the ending, while fine, was rather anticlimactic.
Despite those small criticisms, I absolutely loved THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. It took everything that made the first film so great and further expanded upon it to make it an even more intelligent and compelling film (which is something that all sequels should try to do). If you a big fan of the books or the previous film, I think you’ll definitively enjoy it this one as well. It really is a great film and I can’t wait for the next two films.
– Bede Jermyn