The youth of today. As we took our seats for Catching Fire in a packed, midweek, cinema, my heart sank as I realised that we were sitting next to a group of teenagers. My heart sank further when I heard one of them use the word (I hesitate to call it a word, in truth) ‘worstly’. Yes, really. I needn’t have been so pessimistic, though; what happened did for my cynicism and showed up my own prejudices. Not only were they perfectly silent and engaged throughout the film, but before the film began they were talking about what they were watching on TV. Doctor Who and Breaking Bad, among others. You don’t watch those and not appreciate them. Both of them, in their own ways, are brilliantly written pop culture icons with as much depth and weight to them as you want to find. If you think that’s an adult over-reading a TV show, then it was clear from the conversation that our teenage neighbours felt the same too. In their entertainment they want excitement, but with substance.
Which is why it was entirely apt that we should converge at this second Hunger Games movie. Last year’s first film took the near-future totalitarian nightmare of Panem, and gave us our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) sacrificially volunteering herself in place of her younger sister for the annual gladiatorial, televised, titular fight to the death with 23 other conscripts reaped from the state’s 12 regions. It was an excellent example of an intelligent franchise blockbuster; brilliantly cast and played throughout, special-effects to enhance and propel plot, good action and some big questions about relevant issues: reality television and its effect on viewers and participants, what keeping rich and poor out of relationship with each other does to each, violence and the media and a few other things besides. All that, and it was a major studio project fronted by a woman, whose character didn’t need men to rescue her but who was more than capable of doing the rescuing herself.
That such a successful film managed to satisfy such a devoted fan-base of the books only served to illustrate how good the film was, a faithful adaptation which worked as a film yet avoided the ‘narrative on rails’ feeling that dogged more than one of the Harry Potter films. Pressure, then, on this second film. Surely it couldn’t live up to the expectations of book-lovers and fans new to the material after such a strong first film?
Yes, it could. In style. It would be so easy to have fallen into the ‘more is more’ trap, and just injected the strengths of the first film with steroids. Katniss and fellow victor/survivor Peeta are required to tour their victory around Panem’s provinces, pretending love for the cameras. They find a country on the verge of a rebellion which they’d unwittingly inspired; in an attempt to quell this they and other former victors are put back in the Hunger Games arena for a special 75th anniversary Hunger Games. It does have all the strengths of the original; drained colour palettes in the districts, gaudy colour in the centre of power, superb performances throughout, lurking dread, shocks and tension and gripping action.
There’s actually a little less out-and-out action than the first film, but what there is just as effective, but for different reasons. Whereas the first installment made good mileage from the harsh discomfort of watching children try to kill each other, this film pits gives us adults who know how to kill and survive, sacrifice and betray. The same themes are there also, this time with the nascent rebellion taking on more of the plot’s weight and recalling how distractions can dehumanize, upping the ‘bread and circuses’ roll of control the Hunger Games are designed to effect for the government.
There’s so much that’s good here. Without knowing the books I was totally taken in by the narrative; tension boiled, plot-twists revealed themselves at the right time in the right way. The introduction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, never less than excellent, in a key supporting role is master-stroke as an actor who can do much with comparatively little screen time. It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s film though. I’ve loved her work since the outstanding Winter’s Bone. She’s a skilful, engaging screen presence with strength and vulnerability in just the right measures with the weight of screen presence to carry a film in which she is on-screen for the majority of the running time. She (and the intelligent direction) ensures that a film well over two hours in length zips by. She’s a likeable, down-to-earth star off-screen also; impressively unruffled and unchanged by the media machine, a star to enjoy and admire.
It’s easy but erroneous to patronise pop culture. There always has been and always will be good and bad within it. The Hunger Games series is at the top end, surfing a wave of popularity but asking hard questions and probing at society’s underbelly. The youth of today are in good hands; but don’t you dare think this is only for youth. A good film is a good film; and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a very good one.
I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com