The child-killing game show is back in a champion-of-champions rematch, with Katniss and Peeta recalled to the arena to die in a rigged game before they can start a revolution.
Jennifer Lawrence impresses again as Katniss, the backwoods heroine with a bow and arrow trying to defy the totalitarian state of dictator President Snow – an arch performance by Donald Sutherland turning in his first proper acting performance in years. Watch for class act Philip Symour Hoffman as the new game maker Plutarch Heavensbee.
With Katniss and Peeta combating post-traumatic stress, and divided after the fake romance that got them out of their first Hunger Games, the naive pair are soon causing all kinds of trouble on their victory tour around the oppressed twelve districts. Their appearances begin to brew the very revolution that the Games are intended to quell.
With a personal visit from the malevolent dictator Snow (the equivalent of tea with Stalin), it is quickly apparent that whatever Katniss and Peeta promise, the districts will not quiet, and so to the Quater-Quell, the special edition Games where previous winners are put back into the arena. Katniss becomes Rollerball‘s Jonathan E, while Snow is John Houseman’s corporate executive, building champions as global icons only to crush them under the wheels of the state against which no individual can win.
The Hunger Games franchise never quite manages to get from under the shadow of The Running Man, Battle Royale and Rollerball, despite this time delivering a more even balance of Hunger and Games, culminating in a slick and tension-fillled arena as the survivors attempt to survive poison gas, tsunami, killer baboons and each other.
However, the grim premise merely underlines the basic failings of Suzanne Collins set-up. The totalitarian state of Panem is even more transparently Ancient Rome updated, a slave society supporting the grandiose and flamboyant upper classes in the capitol, distracted with the bread and circuses of the games. We have another chariot procession by the tributes, our gladiators, before the Emperor-President; lavish receptions complete with vomitorium; meanwhile the districts are oppressed with bloody brutality by Snow’s legions of riot troops (replete with white storm-trooper armour – I wonder where that came from?). It’s so over the top, so lacking in subtelty, it’s laughable.
Fortunately all the performers shine, from Lawrence, Hutcherson, and Sutherland through the supporting players; Woody Harrelson much stronger as ex-champ Hamich, while Elizabeth Banks as the Capitol’s finest PR merchant, Effy Trinket, cries through her theatrical mask. Among the contestants, Jeffrey Wright excels as the brainy genius, Amanda Plummer does one of her trademark mental breakdowns, and buff Sam Clafflin becomes Burt Lancaster as Finick Odair. Add excellent Jena Malone (Donnie Darko) as angry axe-woman Johanna and we have two girl-powered heroines leading the charge.
There is also much more satire in this middle instalment, embodied in Stanley Tucci’s grotesque host, Ceasar Flickerman, the grinning manipulator of a sickly and sinister reality TV. Collins and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Full Monty) take aim at gameshow-America, pop-culture and celebrity. Incoming director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) puts it altogether with panache and keeps us hooked even through the slow passages.
It is Hoffman who raises these games; dressed down and under-playing, Hoffman is cast with villainy in mind (Mission Impossible III), and in his duelling scenes with Katness and Snow, there is clearly another agenda beside avoiding the fate of his predecessor, Cineqa.
But it’s a dominant performance from Oscar-winner Lawrence at the centre, from her survivor guilt, living in fear of Snow, the love triangle with Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), then back to the games where Katniss’ toughness really shines.
And she’s not just Red Sonja with a plait. For this teen-lit heroine, even her fashion choices embody ‘power dressing,’ beginning as backwoods hunter, then Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra for the parade, to a fire-twirling transformation from white-clad bride to midnight-blue, winged mockingjay, and finally to sexy futuristic warrior woman in tight neoprine for the arena. It may not be your typical teen-boys’ sci-fantasy blockbuster, but you can bet Lawrence sold a lot of tickets with that outfit alone.
As the ‘difficult middle episode’ of a ‘trilogy’ (yes, Jockingjay will be two movies), Catching Fire has a tough job to stand alone and end on a cliffhanger. But Lawrence delivers a knockout final scene – from despair to fury. Rebellion is in the air. Fulfil her destiny must she… RC
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Simon Beaufoy (from Suzanne Collins)
Cert (UK): 12A
Runtime: 146 mins
Genre: Sci-fi, Fantasy
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hucherson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Jena Malone, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson.
Related: The Hunger Games (2012)