Catching Fire offers a compelling Hunger Games rematch
Atlanta turns dystopian as backdrop for sci-fi action romance
Katniss Everdeen could be a Cinderella for the 21st century — or whichever future era The Hunger Games series takes place. Both heroines begin in sooty obscurity, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) living in impoverished, coal-mining District 12, only to be whisked away, given fancy gowns, and paraded before the ruling class. Certainly her garishly dressed handler Effie Trinket looks and behaves like somebody's idea of a fairy godmother.
Of course, Cinderella only seeks to marry well, thanks in part to finding a glass slipper that fits. Katniss proves to be a more assertive young woman by using her archery skill and strategic thinking to prevail in a lethal competition, without losing her moral compass. The first Hunger Games ends with Katniss victorious as the most popular woman in the country, but in a twist more worthy of a soap opera than a fairy tale, she must maintain the fiction that she loves fellow winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) rather than her longtime flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, like Suzanne Collins' original novel, anticipates the demands of a sequel to repeat the same story while offering enough twists to make it fresh. The effectiveness of the first Hunger Games relied partly on transplanting the familiar conventions of reality TV to gladiatorial combat, with "tributes" like Katniss becoming not just combatants, but celebrities. As a too-enthusiastic TV host, Stanley Tucci again provides invaluable comic relief: You risk blindness if you stare too long at his gleaming teeth.
Catching Fire's first section has Katniss and Peeta touring the oppressed regions of futuristic America (now called Panem), reminiscent of a reality TV winner making the rounds with the press. For Katniss, the stakes remain high as ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland), well aware that she's become a symbol of hope and defiance, insists she voices support for the country's Capitol. Catching Fire provides an object lesson in media manipulation, although there's an irony that Lawrence so effectively conveys Katniss's disaffection with fame, when the Oscar-winning actress is one of the most likable, enthusiastic performers of her generation.
As the dissent still ripples through the Districts, Hunger Games head Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes up with a scheme along the lines of a "Survivor All-Stars" show, as the 75th anniversary competition draws tributes from the previous winners, so Katniss is once more tapped in a lottery, given a makeover, and trotted out for the cameras. In Catching Fire, she faces more vicious players but also finds more quirky allies, including hunky but sneaky Finnick (Sam Claflin) and a pair of squirrelly technical experts (the scene-stealing Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer).
Although Catching Fire filmed many of the arena scenes in Hawaii, much of the rest of the film was shot in Atlanta, so the Goat Farm frequently stands in for hardscrabble District 12 while the Swan House hosts a palatial reception at the wealthy Capitol. Two long-time Atlanta stage actors, Megan Hayes and E. Roger Mitchell, even play rival tributes.
Ending on an intriguing cliffhanger, Catching Fire feels of a piece with the previous film, even though Francis Lawrence replaces Gary Ross as director. Lawrence gives the sequel a little more emotional intensity, but Ross's take on the first film's game had more staying power. Long stretches showed Lawrence on her own, conveying Katniss's thoughts while hunting and being hunted. The new games have more high-tech perils but seem less dangerous, and since the heroine has more friends but fewer options, she seems more passive. Maybe Katniss, lacking the choices she deserves, is more like Cinderella than her ass-kicking prowess would suggest.