‘Catching Fire’: Jennifer Lawrence’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

While a good film overall, there was a whitewashing that occurred while making the first Hunger Games movie. Gone was the sense of brutality in the books and, with it, the book’s entire purpose of questioning our voyeuristic fascination with youth and violence in pop culture. (Author Suzanne Collins has said she was inspired to write the books while flipping TV channels and seeing juxtaposed clips of reality competition programs and the Iraq War.) In Catching Fire, the film quadrilogy’s second installment, a new director breathes new life into the franchise.

We’re still mostly removed from the graphic violence, this is a PG-13 film after all, but this time around we feel the devastating impact of a world that annually forces 24 children to kill each other on live television in the name of entertainment. At the outset of Catching Fire, we see Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a shell of who she once was. She’s haunted by what she’s been forced to do and terrified of what she’ll be forced to do by the totalitarian government, now that she’s a celebrity. This film’s winter setting feels much truer to the book: harsh and uninviting, but all the more intriguing because of its grit.

In the time since we last saw her, Katniss has become a symbol of revolution among the districts of Panem. Because of this, the brutal President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has made it his mission to transform her into a PR tool for the Capitol. His visit to Katniss’ home at the beginning of the film, in which he threatens to kill her family unless she behaves herself, sets the film’s threat level at red. Then Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are off on their “Victor’s Tour” of each district; their first duty in their unwanted roles as the official mouthpieces for Capitol control.

It is a testament to Lawrence’s direction that the tension established at the beginning of the film never ebbs, but continues to heighten, like one of Beetee’s wires being pulled ever tauter. This is all leading, of course, to the 75th Hunger Games. (Of course there will be a Hunger Games.) Before seeing the film, I’d feared that it would be difficult to capture this new arena, but Lawrence has truly brought the world Collins created on page to life. This new arena, designed by a new gamemaker, is a deceptively simple jungle full of dangers. Fans of the books will be delighted to see how it’s been interpreted on screen.

A new Hunger Games, of course, brings new tributes, most notably Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Jena Malone) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). Malone is particularly impressive and the tough-as-nails tribute from District 7.

The Games themselves are far more interesting than they were in the first installment. There is less sitting and waiting and far more plotting and seat-gripping action. While this is partially because the source material is a bit more exciting this time around, but it’s worth commending Lawrence for creating that, at 146 minutes, feels like a roller coaster ride: pure adrenaline and then it’s done. I’d have gladly remained in my seat for another two hours to watch the next installment.

It goes without saying that our lead, Jennifer Lawrence, is once again stunning. The Katniss we meet in Catching Fire is much more complex than the one we’d known before and Lawrence has injected her with a deep sense of dread, anger and regret. She’s proven herself a great actor but her proves herself to be a true movie star with the type of performance that commands attention but doesn’t hog the spotlight. She’s the heroine just good enough for us to root for and just damaged enough for us to like.

If the first Hunger Games movie was criticized for missing the point and glossing over the brutality of its violence, that’s not been repeated here. Catching Fire is a popcorn blockbuster, sure, but it’s dark and it’s grim and the odds are ever in its favor.