The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12A)

The Hunger Games, the lethal game dreamed up by corporate leaders to pacify the people carries on. Only now they need to ‘deal’ with the heroine who accidentally emerged from its ranks.

Everyone’s favourite rebel Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) returns to the big screen in the second instalment in The Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

Catching Fire returns us to the totalitarian future, where the once rebellious districts are forced to offer up their children for annual sacrifice, part of a grotesque reality show designed to titillate the ruling classes while subjugating the masses.

Our brilliantly mercurial heroine is trying to keep her head down after not only surviving, but outsmarting the Games. After saving her teammate Peeta from death through feigned affection, Katniss finds herself cast back into the arena when the authorities announce a Quarter Quell.

This is a deviously super-charged tournament entirely made up with former champions who will be forced to exterminate one another. Just to make things that bit worse they also have to fight each other whilst battling poisonous gas, raining blood, man-eating monkeys and electrifying force fields. Once again, the Games are on.

Catching Fire concentrates less on the horror of children killing children, the returning contestants are necessarily older than before, and more on the Games’ true purpose as an anaesthetising spectator sport.

Katniss presents a problem; a global icon whose (Grimm) fairytale victory has allowed her to transcend the all-powerful arena. Sycophant President Snow (Donald Sutherland) revels in plotting her demise. The ageing autocrat’s benign manner hides a murderous resolve. He gets to sit back whilst the desperate become more downtrodden and the privileged more wealthy and most importantly, entertained.

The extravagantly coiffed couture of Catching Fire’s super rich similarly is another world away from the lives of the inhabitants of the poorer districts. Although this time Elizabeth Banks starts to crawl out from under Effie Trinket’s wig to express something approaching sisterly resolve. Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is his usual drunken, yet tactical self. As the hour of orchestrated carnage approaches, you half expect him to start shouting: “Game?! This was never meant to be a game!”

Upping the dramatic ante is franchise newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman’s as the uncharacteristically dressed-down games designer Plutarch Heavensbee, the technical wizard behind the human suffering whose sinister conversations with President Snow give clear voice to the story’s most radical elements. Then there’s Caeser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his terrifyingly white teeth, presenting a ghoulishly satirical grin whilst biting into the sickly flesh of deadly game show presentation.

Somewhere in the background of all this mayhem there’s a love triangle. Forced to maintain the illusion of romance with Peeta but actually devoted to Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss simply accepts that the problems of three people don’t amount to the hell surrounding her. She leaves the boys to do the angsty moping while she gets on with the more important task of saving her community.

This is significant not only because it inverts more conservative gender roles, but also because it makes clear that the story isn’t about love, at least not for the moment, but war.”Would you like to be in a real war?” President Snow asks Katniss with bristling malignance as he orders her to maintain the pretence of love that has won the hearts of the public. Her terse reply is typically dispassionate: “What do I need to do?”

Whether the series can maintain the necessary narrative momentum for another two movies, the final book, Mockingjay has inevitably been split into two parts, remains to be seen. There’s already an element of repetition evident in the overly lengthy Catching Fire, and although Francis Lawrence has proved himself an efficient director, one cannot help but wonder whether Gary Ross bailed out partly because he didn’t want to repeat himself.

Yet with a star turn as commanding and imposing as Jennifer Lawrence, it may yet transpire that every element of the franchise is interchangeable except her. Like Katniss, Lawrence has become bigger than the Games themselves, something that makes her very powerful, very dangerous and rather inspirational. That in itself is a victory worth cheering.

Lawrence is extremely impressive as the warrior whose public support disturbs the powers that be. What makes the books and the films compelling is the way they define anxieties and pop-culture obsessions in our everyday lives: anger over politicians, fascination with celebrities, a growing disgruntled underclass, addiction to reality shows and video games and the regularity of large-scale violent acts that monopolise TV coverage.

This bleak morality tale is anything but dull. I wouldn’t say that there is as much action in this offering, but then again who wants to see the same movie twice? The formula is the same but elements have been changed, updated. There isn’t the normal pining for a guy scene that we often see in these tween books turned movies. There’s no chance of a Bella-Edward- Jake mope- fest. This is a gutsy movie with an inherent moral message that has been present in both movies so far.

This second movie offers us a look into the lives of the Districts’ inhabitants. We see the gluttony of those revelling in the stupendous wealth of the Capitol, and then in deep contrast those living in the Districts barely surviving.

This is the calm before the storm, and taking this movie into account, it’s going to be epic when it finally hits.

By Ruth Walker
★★★★☆

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