It’s rare when part 2 of a trilogy can not only live up to expectations, but surpass them. The second entry isn’t the exciting setup, nor the epic conclusion. There are examples, but second installments are often a holding pattern for the final and third climatic entry. Attack of the Clones, anyone? My feeling about Part 1 are a matter of public record. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I even felt that it jettisoned superfluous aspects of the book in service of an improved cinematic experience. Now we come to Catching Fire. I appreciated the novel, but it was hampered by the law of diminishing returns. The plot begins when the people of Panem greet Katniss as she tours the 12 districts with Peeta on her victorious return from the Hunger Games. The two arrive as heroes. But President Snow is not happy with the outcome. The seeds of revolt have been planted. The leader seeks to contain the building restlessness of the populace. His solution will affect the lives of many former winners. Catching Fire violates a commonly held belief that sequels are inferior. This shouldn’t have happened, but Catching Fire actually surpasses The Hunger Games. The film does the impossible. It presents a 2 ½ hour movie that is thrilling from beginning to end and leaves the audience breathlessly waiting for the next installment.
What makes Catching Fire so effective is the utter believability of the narrative. Credit an ensemble cast that delivers without exception. These days, we’re lucky to get one performance that captivates our emotion in a typical big budget fantasy like this. Here I could cite 10 actors that impress with their contributions. However any reasonable discussion must acknowledge the lead. Jennifer Lawrence is a talent of the highest magnitude. Let’s face it. A dystopian future where the state maintains egregious control, is nothing new. We’ve seen this subject before in literary masterpieces such as 1984 and Brave New World to celluloid classics like Brazil and The Matrix. Here the tyrannical state punishes its citizens by making them fight to the death, and then presents the ordeal to the masses as entertainment. The deterioration of society is a prevalent theme in fiction (and in the real world to be quite honest). Yet there still remains an inherent skepticism. In each frame, Jennifer Lawrence expressive portrayal engenders our sympathy. Study her countenance as she takes her National Victory Tour. As she stares out to the faces of the districts whose tributes she has defeated, she reveals pain, often without speaking. Her expressions speak more than a thousand pages. Her tortured soul in full view of a nation. You too might feel sorrow. Miss Lawrence renders a flawless achievement. She treats the role as if she were acting in a biographical drama. Her sincere performance has the gravitas required to engage our passion.
Studio Lionsgate Entertainment increased the budget from the first film by over 60% and it shows. Catching Fire dazzles the senses in almost every scene. The tale is particularly amusing when sending up the frivolous facade of disposable entertainment. The first half detailing the increasing uneasiness, is actually more compelling than the standard-issue combat of the second half. Some of the climactic resolutions will be a bit murky to people unfamiliar with the text. The critique of our media based culture is rather engaging. The actors embody the residents of a despotic state that feels as genuine as any historical saga. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket coordinates our protagonists’ personal appearances. Sporting false eyelashes that extend out like tendrils from her eyes, she is a glittering Christmas tree of changing outfits. She remains just as intellectually superficial, but her character registers a knowing sadness this time around. Her discontent with the process is barely there, but it is perceptible. Her ever-so-subtle dissatisfaction mirrors the mood of the citizenry. The depiction is masterful in its nuance. Later, Katniss is on stage with host Caesar Flickerman in her pre-games interview show. The glitzy neon, “Hollywood” production is a humorous parallel to American Idol, although the stakes are admittedly much higher. Stanley Tucci is the preening, purple haired, showman with bright white capped teeth. His flashy persona rivals Ryan Seacrest.
Catching Fire does a brilliant job of taking a beloved work and turning it into a cinematic event. You’ve heard the adage “show don’t tell.” In scene after scene, director Francis Lawrence invigorates the words of Suzanne Collins’ novel into a fully realized picture that exploits the possibilities of the visual medium. The evils of living in Panem are explored with an enlightened depth. The actors personify the victims of a single-party totalitarian dictatorship in the saga of an oppressive government. The anguish is authentic, at times heartbreaking. There is a scene in Catching Fire where Katniss takes a TV stage resplendent in a white wedding gown. She is unveiling the dress she was supposed to have worn in her upcoming marriage ceremony to Peeta. As the live studio spectators watch in rapt attention, she begins spinning. The outfit catches fire, engulfed in flames transformed like a phoenix. Her costume grows wings, becoming a mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion against the capital. The galvanizing spectacle will have grave repercussions later, but it’s a heady display – an instant to share in the power of the collective experience. We’re witnessing the manifestation of a star right before our very eyes – in the movie, but also real life. The fame of Katniss Everdeen parallels Jennifer Lawrence’s own soaring career trajectory. Indeed life imitates art.