The sequel to a much-loved first film is always difficult, for both filmmakers and fans. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire certainly subscribes to Twilight-syndrome to some extent, where a rough, indie-feeling first instalment morphs into a slick, shiny studio feature. But in this instance, unlike The Twilight Saga: New Moon, it doesn’t seem to matter here. It makes sense that the series should feel bigger as it aims to tell its story on a much-grander scale.
As the film opens up we see how life is going in District 12 now Katniss has won The Hunger Games. It’s not good. Unrest is growing, as is the harsh rule of the dictator (Donald Southerland) who means to stamp out any sparks of rebellion Katniss and Peeta caused when they defied the rules of the Games last year.
Katniss is struggling to appear in love with Peeta. They both kept up a celebrity-couple image so as to win the love the public, but now they have the rest of their lives to look forward to and the pretence is becoming difficult. Katniss loves Gale, a hunky Hemsworth brother, but Peeta loves Katniss. So far, so teenage-saga-ish. Thankfully, this second film in the series escapes predictability and tired cliché through the plot (the Games return, but nastier) and via the verve and momentum of the directing.
The acting is uniformly excellent all round (especially Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, as magnetic as ever), but the real surprise here is Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. He delivers a role of emotional intelligence and subtle understanding that I hadn’t believed capable of him. He has never been a bad actor, and has built up an impressive CV of films since he was a child, but here he is understated in a expert way rather than a mundane melt-into-the-background kind of way.
Director Francis Lawrence commands the energetic story with a confident hand, helped by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn’s excellent adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s novel. Francis Lawrence has directed a series of awful movies, including I Am Legend and Water for Elephants, but his work here is superb.
There was a lot of fuss last year about T-Bone Burnett’s involvement in the soundtrack; so much so that James Newton Howard’s score was more or less forgotten. This year, [Francis] Lawrence wisely decides it should take centre stage, and he lets Howard’s lush themes develop and grow in order to complement some of the more powerful scenes.
Some may complain that people like Philip Seymour Hoffman are sidelined in favour of photogenic teens, but in the end this is Lawrence and Hutcherson’s show, and they steal it (well, it was theirs in the first place). Maybe the fact that Lawrence is now an Oscar winning actor may draw new viewers to this series that may have at first dismissed it as teenage nonsense. It really isn’t.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), directed by Francis Lawrence, is released in cinemas in the UK by Lionsgate, Certificate 12A.
This review was originally written for and published by The National Student, in association with The Edge.