The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a follow up to the original blockbuster smash hit from 2012 and sees the return of Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland to their now iconic roles. Francis Lawrence takes over as director of the franchise which is based on the popular series of books written by Suzanne Collins.
After winning the 74th Hunger Games competition in controversial fashion, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are sent on a promotional "victory tour" of the 12 districts of Panem. While they are at first reluctant, President Snow (Sutherland) convinces them to cooperate and to continue the charade of being lovers the two District 12 competitors fabricated in an effort to stay alive during the games. Despite President Snow's efforts, tension between the districts continues to build and it becomes clear that more drastic measures will be needed to put an end to the rising rebellion that is being inspired more and more by not just Katniss and Peeta, but by the influence of every living hunger games victor.
Snow ultimately decides to bring in Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to take over as games master and his first decision in the new role is to have the 75th hunger games, also known as the Quarter Quell, draw its roster of competitors only from the remaining winners of previous contests. This puts Katniss and Peeta right back into a competition each had hoped they would never have to experience again although this time the stakes are even higher than before.
Let me first share with you that I really enjoyed watching this movie and it was great to see all of the familiar characters being played by an extremely talented roster of acting talent. Jennifer Lawrence on her own has more ability in her left thumb than a lot of other actors out there today and, as Katniss Everdeen, she continues to prove her status as both critical and box office darling. Woody Harrelson also does a great job with his character although still in a fairly limited role and the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman was a solid move. I've never been much of a fan of his work, but he does well enough to not be a distraction for me.
Oddly enough, the two most entertaining performances of the entire movie are the ones given by Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks as each elevate their characters, TV Show host Caesar Flickerman and District 12 escort Effie Trinket respectively, to a level that is hilariously fun while managing to not go too far over the top. Ms Banks is most impressive in how, even behind the makeup, wardrobe, and whimsical personality, you still end up seeing a passionate human being with an inner strength that makes Effie much more than just comic relief or background fluff. Going the other direction, Liam Hemsworth, as Gale Hawthorne and love interest to Katniss, is just sort of there. Sure his screen time is limited (again) but he doesn't really give you any reason to want to see more.
With all of that good stuff out of the way, there are more than a couple issues I had with the story itself, some of which needs to stay inside my head to avoid spoilers, but some of it I will tell you about right here and now. Also keep in mind, I have not read the books, so I had no idea what to expect going in. While Catching Fire does progress the overall story, I felt it was mostly a repeat of everything that happened in the first movie and we really didn't learn anything new about Panem, the characters, or the pending rebellion. It would have been nice to go deeper into the motivations behind some of the key people like President Snow or Haymitch Abernathy although, by the end, I could understand why they couldn't really go there.
While I understand they are trying to cram so much from the book into the movie, there is just so much story and so many characters that are just glossed over that I couldn't ever fully invest in what was going on. On the plus side, the action was all fairly well done, although again a little redundant, and the special effects are all top notch across the board. I did have issue with a few of the arena sequences like how the effects of a killer fog that can be just washed off with plain old water and a really weird monkey attack that sort of came out of nowhere and then ended just as oddly and abruptly.
Ultimately, Catching Fire is a solid entry into the franchise even if it did tread the same waters and didn't have the same wow factor as the first installment. Even so, I am definitely looking forward to seeing what may be in store for Katniss and crew over the next two movies and I'm very hopeful that another go at it will yield even better results. As I am writing this, I have not yet seen the IMAX version although, from what I understand, the arena sequences, which were filmed with IMAX cameras, are a pretty stunning sight to behold although please avoid fake IMAX theaters as you will not get the full, intended experience. Either way, this is definitely a movie worth checking out and especially if you are already a fan of the books or previous movie.