Somebody said that “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second in the series of four movies adapting author Suzanne Collins’ three books, is like “The Empire Strikes Back” for this series and in a way, they’re right.
I wouldn’t call the ending a cliff-hanger, actually. Like “Empire,” there is a resolution.
But “Catching Fire,” like Collins’ book, leaves some pretty big plot threads hanging. And they make us eagerly anticipate the resolution of the story even more.
I’ve noted before that that Collins’ clever and compulsively readable series starts off like a “Survivor”-style battle that demonstrates the cruelty of a totalitarian government but very quickly turns into a war story. By the time “Catching Fire” comes around the Hunger Games event itself is almost secondary to the growing protest by the oppressed citizens of Panem, the future USA, and the heavy-handed crackdown by President Snow and the government.
For 74 years, the government has enforced its rule and beaten down the citizenry – who dared try to overthrow the government three quarters of a century before – by taking two young people from each of the country’s 12 remaining districts and making them slaughter each other in a life-or-certain-death competition, called “The Hunger Games” because the name emphasizes the rewards for winning: A nice house back in your hometown and enough food to sustain your family. Not gold or glory. Just survival.
The way the games are portrayed, at least early in the books, is that they are a “gift” from the government, a not-so-gentle reminder of the price of revolt and “showcase” for the country’s best and bravest young people. It’s an ingenious plot point by Collins, as gifted a writer as any writing today.
The events of “The Hunger Games,” in which young District 12 contestants Katniss and Peeta not only survive but become an inspiration – much to the frustration of Snow – turn long-standing resentment of the government into a burgeoning revolt by the time of “Catching Fire.”
In the second novel and new movie, Katniss and Peeta are chosen, along with other previous Hunger Games victors, to participate in a special, 75th anniversary games – the Quarter Quell – pitting past champions against each other.
It’s an insidious plan. Katniss can either die or be molded into an unsympathetic competitor, willing to sacrifice her fellow champions, victors worshipped in their own districts.
The competition doesn’t come until half-way through “Catching Fire,” and it’s not portrayed with as much detail as the competition was in the first movie. That’s probably a wise move, since even if you haven’t read the book you’ll guess there’s something else afoot here. The new competitors, like Finnick and Johanna, have something up their spandex sleeves.
In some ways, I think “Catching Fire” is a better movie than “The Hunger Games,” which had the disadvantage of setting a lot of plot into motion but did have a shiny new world to show off. “Catching Fire” takes its time telling its story but doesn’t drag. It nicely expands on the storylines and characters and introduces new ones. And even though its ending – heck, maybe it is a cliffhanger – leaves you wanting more, it also leaves you feeling satisfied.
Once again, Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss. She’s roiling on the inside but calm on the outside through most of the movie, but the final shot – as she realizes the implications of everything that’s happened and a look of controlled fury appears on her face – is enough to boost audience expectations for “Mockingjay,” which will apparently be a two-movie adaptation of the final book.
Surely you know this by now, but “The Hunger Games” – although ostensibly a “young adult” book and movie series – is dark. Dark. Dark. And the story only gets darker in “Mockingjay.” It’s vivid, brutal and thrilling war fiction but war fiction nonetheless.