The second film in a Hollywood franchise is make-or-break. Fortunately The Hunger Games: Catching Fire walked it. Slick effects, all-around improved cast and a more elaborate, darker plot all combined together for a truly superb sequel that more than overshadows its predecessor.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) spends most of the film in emotional turmoil. She’s dealing with the psychological ramifications of competing in the Games first time around and the fact she’s in love with both Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). On top of all that, there’s also the introduction of the intriguing political plot as Katniss becomes at first unwittingly, then intentionally, a symbol for the growing rebellion against the tyrannical Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
There’s much more maturity to the piece, too. Things have become brutal. There are multiple graphic torture scenes and a lot of despotic regime box-ticking. People are beaten up before being dragged away, guards wielding batons break up riots, and to cap it all off, there’s a graphic whipping scene. It might make some raise their eyebrows at the 12A-certificate, but it’s actually pretty impressive that they realise so much of it on screen. It gives the Capitol some real menace, instead of President Snow just malevolently raising an eyebrow and offering up a threat in a husky, ominous voice (although he still does plenty of that).
The humour has improved a lot too. Katniss’s deadpan response and general awkwardness around Peeta is fertile ground of course, but flamboyant chat-show host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) and Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) offer some light relief with their own particular glee over the Games and struggle to grapple with Katniss’s increasingly evident opposition to them. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) steals the show, though, once again as booze-swigging former tribute, acting as a voice of reason to snap Katniss out of her emotional turmoil at key moments.
The various other tributes don’t really make much impact other than Finnick (Sam Clafllin), which offers another handsome hunk for a franchise bursting with them at the seams. It’s good that both Hemsworth and Hutcherson upped their game in terms of personality this time around, because if they’d been as they were in the first film, they’d have been in danger of being overshadowed by Claflin’s star turn.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is all the better for abandoning its teen-friendliness. Like the later Harry Potter and Twilight films, the violent content has been upped and the leads have all come into their own. Lawrence dominates predictably, and though she won’t be getting any Oscar nominations considering the type of film in question, her performance is stellar. The darker and more mature script also elevates the film with the added focus on the political aspect, making it all the more intriguing. Catching Fire has done what it needed to and more: it’s cemented the franchise as Hollywood’s new darling, evolved it from pure teen fodder, and – best of all – showcased the considerable talent of its cast.