The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Jennifer Lawrence continues to fight for survival in a bigger, better sequel…

Last year our screens were set alight with the adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ popular and best-selling trilogy, The Hunger Games. The film was an action-packed, nightmarish vision of a dystopian world in which every year one boy and one girl is chosen at random from each of 12 districts to do battle in a deadly arena. Last one left alive is the winner. But in the first film we saw how Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteered to fight in the games in her sister’s place, bested this cruel regime put in place by the ruling Capital when she threatened to end the games in an unexpected act of defiance way with her fellow district member Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Their victory over those games is short-lived though. Having both returned to District 12, Katniss and Peeta are still having to put on a show for the cameras in order to survive punishment. Their act isn’t convincing everyone though with more and more people in the districts uprising to rebel against the Capital. If Katniss and Peeta don’t appease them who knows what the vicious Capital leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland) will have in store for them, or what he will do to their families?

To say more about this sequel, or even its predecessor, would be to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the first film or read the excellent trilogy itself. One thing I can say overall though is that The Hunger Games is a series that has it all. Not only are they effective thrillers that have superb set pieces and action, all the books (and in turn the films themselves) are clever, biting satires of politics and the media, especially reality TV. It is therefore ridiculously relevant to our society at the moment. The first film had all of these aspects, in particular the idea of the reality TV that was anything but real or fair, with victors playing up to the cameras in order to stay alive. However great that first film was though, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) is all that times 20. The action is upped, the stakes are higher for Katniss and Peeta (and for everyone around them) and the satire is ever relevant. Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn brilliantly adapt Suzanne Collins’ work for the big screen, with their script for this sequel including all the right moments from the book. Director Francis Lawrence also makes this sequel much more hard-hitting and brutal than the first film, as well as much more realistic. In fact a couple of parts that I thought would have to be omitted from this version due to keeping the film certificate down are actually kept in, in a bold move that means more violence, more blood and more horror. The pathos and heart-breaking moments are also all the more present (I nearly cried 5 times) Lawrence not afraid to keep these parts in to get to the depth of the characters’ harsh lives.

The one thing I will say about the pace of the film is that it takes a little while to get going. The first act is mostly just introduction to the world of Panem again and an update on what has happened to Katniss and Peeta (and what is about to happen). This slow first part actually makes this sequel feel like two separate films, a problem the book has as well.  The first part is more of an issues film and more politically satirical, the second is a thrilling survival tale packed with action. It is after this slow first part though that the fun really starts… This is with the introduction to a new games line-up and to some very interesting characters. Katniss and Peeta meet previous victors of the games, all quirky, twisted and potentially dangerous in their own special way. Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) in particular is one standout – a preening blonde-haired poster boy for the games. After my initial doubt at Claflin being cast in this role, he manages to prove me wrong. He hits all the right notes with Finnick playing him at first as a vacuous pretty boy, but with Claflin gradually hinting at something more below Finnick’s vain surface.

Other new actor additions add a sense of gravitas and realism to the proceedings, fleshing out smaller roles with great performances. Jeffrey Wright is superb as Beetee, a calculating electronics expert from District 3, as is Amanda Plummer in a brief role as Wiress the fellow member from District 3 who might not be all quite there… We are also introduced to a new Head Gamesmaker this year – Plutarch Heavensbee, played brilliantly by the ever reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman. However the newest arrival in this sequel who is by far the best, and funniest, is Johanna Mason played by Jena Malone. Malone plays her to perfection – having read the book myself it genuinely feels as though she has literally been pulled straight out of the book, in all her rude, obnoxious (yet hilarious) glory. Her portrayal really is that good.

Alongside this impressive new cast list though the returning characters all make an impression this time round as well. Josh Hutcherson builds on the much smaller role Peeta has to play in the second book, making him more of a fighter and less of a victim while still showing him as a sweet boy who wears his heart on his sleeve. Liam Hemsworth also makes the most of a shorter role as Gale, Katniss’s closest friend, whose part seems to have been greatly reduced from what is in the book. Still he manages to get across the bond Gale feels for Katniss as well as his courage at standing up for what he believes in. Three more worth a mention are Donald Sutherland who is brilliantly creepy and menacing as President Snow, Woody Harrelson who is still excellent as the drunken Haymitch, and matching him for laughs is Elizabeth Banks as the OTT Effie Trinket who gets the best lines and the best and most outrageous outfits to wear.

However the real star pulling power of the film is Katniss herself, or more precisely Jennifer Lawrence. She has won people over with her amazing portrayal of the courageous girl, as well as with her real life sweet and funny personality. And again that likable presence is what shines through onscreen. As Katniss she is stoic and determined to fight against anyone she has to. But Lawrence also knows when to show Katniss’s vulnerable side in order to show how great her struggle against the Capital truly is, as well as her doubt at being able to survive what she is about to face. It is this mix of attitude and fear that Lawrence plays brilliantly well and that makes her so mesmerising to watch.

This sequel to the first Hunger Games is bigger and better than the first and much more thrilling to watch once we get past the first act. Jennifer Lawrence is amazing once more as Katniss – maybe even more so as we dig deeper into this fascinating strong female character. This along with the introduction of some fab new other characters and another trip to a (spoiler!!! – but kind of obvious really) new and much more deadly arena makes for a fun film that you’ll want to see more than once. Again as with the first film, the design for their dystopian world is superb, each moment feeling horribly realistic (except for the usual problem of naff CGI animals!) and certain parts feel like they are directly lifted from the book. It is also a terrifyingly relevant story to our society, satirising our culture and our politics effortlessly. And how many blockbusting record-breaking films can boast that? With the next sequel already being filmed director Francis Lawrence can hopefully reprise his success with this sequel and make the 3rd book come to life as he has done here. But I’m sure with a little work and the reliable presence of Jennifer Lawrence, the odds will ever be in their favour…

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~ by square-eyed-geek on December 24, 2013.

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