Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
What’s a dystopian novel without a post-apocalyptic world? In The Hunger Games that world is Panem, the nation which rose out of the ashes of current day North America. Panem is split up into 12 districts (we don’t talk about District 13) and a glittering and wealthy capital city.
Taking a page from The Colbert Report, this ongoing “Better Know a District” series will take a look at the districts that make up the brutal Hunger Games world.
Welcome To District 12: The Hungry Coal Miners!
Location: District 12 is most likely located somewhere around the Appalachia.
Industry: District 12 is known for its coal mining.
Classes: District 12 is notable for containing two classes of people: the miners and the merchants. Despite providing the district with its main export, the mining class tends to be much poorer (and in much worse health) than the merchant class.
Notable Residents: Most of the main characters in The Hunger Games trilogy hail from District 12. This includes heroine Katniss Everdeen, her sister Prim, her best friend Gale, and fellow competitor Peeta. Their mentor is the boozy Haymitch Abernathy, one of the few former winners of the Games from District 12.
The Seam: The Seam is where the poorest residents of District 12 live, right near the forest that borders the district. This forest is where Katniss and Gale go to hunt in order to keep their families from starving. Unlike the blonde haired and blue-eyed merchant class, the residents of The Seam tend to have dark hair, gray eyes, and olive skin.
The Hob: The Hob is the black market in District 12, where Katniss and Gale often bring their hunting hauls to make some extra money or trade for needed supplies.
Hunger Games Prospects: Before Katniss and Peeta shocked all of Panem with their win, the tributes from District 12 tended to do very poorly in The Hunger Games. This is probably because of the relative poverty of the district and the lack of Games training.