"Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it's contained ... So, contain it."
These words from the totalitarian President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games perfectly state the thesis of the sci-fi series. In the second installment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the spark grows into an uncontainable blaze.
Almost a year after surviving their stint on the annual government-mandated televised child murder competition, victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) live torn between the bourgeois control of the Capitol and the serfdom of their home, District 12. A cloud of tension hovers over their relationship in the wake of Katniss faking a romance with Peeta in order to survive the Games, while she actually pines for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Their victory sparked the hope that President Snow feared, and to quell the potential for uprising, he and the conniving new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), concoct a plan to destroy the symbol Katniss has become, painting her as a member of the Capitol elite before snuffing her out.
From the movie's carefully framed opening shots of Katniss in a frigid forest, Catching Fire establishes its visual style as a cut above its predecessor. Credit goes to the series' new director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and cinematographer Jo Willems (Limitless, Hard Candy). The film's use of gorgeous, cool blue light adds an element of arresting cohesion.
A victory tour Katniss and Peeta must take through the impoverished districts clearly conveys the story's themes of classism; the haves in power versus the weak, numerous have-nots. At every stop, they're paraded in front of the working peasants to deliver hollow, prewritten speeches, while the hostile crowds begin altercations with faceless government guards. These themes of class warfare are constantly being echoed; Catching Fire's message feels rather blunt, but the point gets across.
When President Snow's plans continue to go awry, he unexpectedly thrusts Katniss and Peeta back onto the Hunger Games' battlefield. This time allies play a much more crucial role for the duo from District 12, allowing for depth to be added to the fellow competitors, something mostly lacking in The Hunger Games. There's the brazenly cocky warrior Finnick (Sam Claflin), the sarcastic, angry-at-everything Johanna (Jena Malone), and a pair of intellectuals, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer). Their battle for survival on the new jungle battleground offers up more surprises than found in the original.
Apart from some moments of overwrought whimpering that make dramatic moments feel melodramatic, Lawrence delivers a solid performance, and Hutcherson succeeds at making the somewhat emasculated Peeta seem troubled and steadfastly noble, instead of a two-dimensional wounded bird Katniss is forced to drag along. For his part, Sutherland deftly embodies menacing evil, never making President Snow seem over the top or crazed. His calm confidence is much more disconcerting than any outburst.
Catching Fire hits on the touchstones of a drama's classic second act (though the studio pulled a Harry Potter and split up the final installment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, into two separate movies). After seeing the original's spark of hope ignite in Catching Fire, it won't be easy having to wait for the next chapter to watch the world burn. ♦