|Image courtesy of Lionsgate Entertainment|
Let's just say I knew I was in trouble when I felt the tears pricking the corners of my eyes when Effie (played brilliantly by the effervescent Elizabeth Banks) was giving "her team" of District 12 a pep talk before they have to embark on another hellish round of the despicable games. Catching Fire is The Hunger Games all grown up, where the stakes are higher and the layer of emotional tension is thick enough to cut with a knife.
Which makes sense. Gary Ross, who directed the first installment, is a veteran of the film industry, making such feel-good classics as Big, Seabiscuit, and Pleasantville. Entertainment Weekly reported on the fatherly relationship star Jennifer Lawrence, playing the feisty Katniss Everdeen with great panache, and Ross had with one another, and the result from film #1 is the sense that a proud director papa Ross is watching his little darling go out and fight in the big leagues - a hardened young woman taking a stand against a force so much bigger than her, and Ross can rejoice in creating an effective underdog story that he so loves.
Director Francis Lawrence, who took over the helm of this great galleon of a film franchise, dispenses with such fatherly notions. It's almost as if he is saying to the viewers, get a grip people, this is real drama and the shit is seriously hitting the fan now. This is wholly appropriate. While readers could glory in the shocking stand that Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) take in book 1, now the characters have the face the consequences of their actions - which prove to be incredibly dire.
We see a lot of familiar faces, find out what makes Gale tick, and Stanley Tucci continues to portray the slick character of TV host Caesar Flickerman as a kind of Jimmy Carson on acid. (Fun fact: Gale is played by Liam Hemsworth, is the younger brother of Chris Hemsworth, known to most of us as Thor). There's also some new players, with Philip Seymour Hoffman doing his turn as the urbane new game master, Plutarch Heavensbee, and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a former survivor of the Hunger Games forced to duke it out once again, who still finds time to flash Katniss a cherubic smile in between throwing punches.
There's a lot left by the wayside in transition from book to movie, namely the quiet moments of introspection where Katniss questions her actions, and the character development of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, who I'm sad to report was given an extremely bad wig in this film). Haymitch's influence is felt far less on screen, but it his love towards both Peeta and Katniss is palpable in the fleeting moments he has to make himself known.
Visually stunning, the film burns like tiny papercuts, events moving in such a blur towards - what? Death? Survival? Even when you know what's going to happen next, you can't look away, even in the most heartbreaking moments. Francis Lawrence has cut out the beating heart of The Hunger Games and shown it to us, in all of its raw, bloody glory, and in turn we are repulsed, saddened, and yet fascinated. Gone is the cosy sense of the underdog finally getting her day. In it's place is something darker, a sense of a people rising up for vengeance - a machine whose wheels Katniss has set in motion, a machine far bigger than she could have ever imagined, fueled by the passions of a people that can even make the brilliant white of Caesar's smile lose some of its sheen.