Where many YA adaptations have faltered, the first entry in the Hunger Games franchise succeeded in transferring the doomsday sensibilities of its dystopian vision to the big screen. The film trafficked in fear, didn't cut itself down or hold back on the violence that concerned reluctant parents. It was, in many respects, a strong science fiction film, but still a sort of B-grade one. It hadn't found its footing, seemed to have been treated as a relatively low-budget project. Something about it, though, connected with audiences beyond the age range of the book, and though it was flawed, its ideas and principles were manifest, its allegory en pointe.
For some there were still a few kinks to be worked out, and I know that as entertained as I was by the emotional jousting, many were counting up the mistakes. Yes, Peeta had to become a stronger character. Yes, Katniss needed a little more dimension. Yes, key background context (familiar to those who had read the books) needed to be on screen for the newbies. Yes, yes, yes, all of it, yes. Fear not. This time, the odds are truly in the sequel's favor. With Catching Fire, all is forgiven. The cast and crew have taken the criticism to heart, learned from the experience, and done their absolute best to level up. The results are impressive. As a sequel, it's incredible. We're talking Empire Strikes Back, Prisoner of Azkaban, Dark Knight credit so far as upping the ante of the franchise goes. While that would be more than enough to please the average fan, the true feat of Catching Fire is really that it's kinda hard to deny its strength separate from the series context. There are strides towards an overall great film here, and I'm not afraid to admit it.
This may sound completely crazy, but I found myself engrossed in Catching Fire in a way I've yet to experience with the recent spate of Oscar dramas. In a lot of ways I felt like this was ostensibly a better, more satisfying film than a "serious artwork" like, say, Blue is the Warmest Color. Before you freak out, let me remind you that I know this sounds crazy and that yes, Catching Fire is a very different kind of film; one produced for raw entertainment value, to be consumed with popcorn, to be devoured as cult commodity, sure. But, there's a rare quality to it. Part of the credit can surely be given to Jennifer Lawrence, who, fresh off her Oscar win, plays our struggling heroine with a depth this genre simply isn't used to. Katniss has moved beyond the surly, snarly rebel of the first film. As a victor, her situation has become all the more complicated. Her fake love story with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) may have saved them both from death, but in producing it she became a symbol to an oppressed nation. She beat the system, found a way, and that has her in a curious fix. Her fiercely private lifestyle has been co-opted by the public. She's watched, recorded, and written about, but, even more than that, she's captured the special attention of the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Snow wants to keep the people in control, and Katniss can't seem to stop herself from accidentally giving them hope. Adapted away from the first person narration of the books, Lawrence must manage with little dialogue what Katniss has so much time to say: she is not equipped to deal with her role. She's torn, and Snow forces her to choose between sacrificing her family or her values, two things that seem to be inseparably linked.
Needless to say, Lawrence delivers the goods. This time, though, Josh Hutcherson does as well. Peeta is far more compelling, and it seems that the actor and the character have grown together: Hutcherson has more confidence, more presence, Peeta is in the same boat. There's a chemistry and camaraderie between the two this time that makes the potential of their relationship feel more viable, and which strengthens the very core of instability at the story's center. Acting aside, however, the movie is brilliantly paced. There's a plotting here that feels somehow stronger than my experience with the book itself. We are made to experience the dire nature of Katniss and Peeta's situation, and the conditions of Panem itself. Where the first film relished the chance to jump into combat, we are here forced to fully immerse ourselves in a suffering country ripe for revolution. In District 12, a curfew has been instated, the government has deployed masked police, and those who ask for trouble find their public flogging nationally televised. As the victors tour the nation, they come repeatedly face to face with suffering, brutality, and injustice they have no power to stop. For Katniss, this is maddening. She knows that she is the cause, that what she did is changing the world, but that people are dying because she, essentially, did something selfish. This is a devastating conceit for an action film, and that central conflict permeates every moment of the film. When even the fleeting fight sequences seem to have the fate of the unfree world riding on them, nothing seems cheap anymore. Again, you can call me crazy, but when a surefire blockbuster manages to remain entertaining while throwing ethical weight, personal crisis, and tragedy behind it...it's got something. It's really got something.