Michelle Douvris ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Editor
The Hunger Games franchise has established a pretty good track record at surprising people. Hardly anyone expected the first movie to open to $152 million at the domestic box office, surpassing all four Twilight films. No one could have foreseen that Jennifer Lawrence would go from indie darling, to blockbuster heroine, to Oscar winner in just a few short years. And it seemed unlikely that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire would avoid the curse of the sequel and actually be bigger and better than its predecessor. However, despite having to overcome a few obstacles like the departure of director Gary Ross and a very tight production schedule, Catching Fire manages to not only improve upon the first installment but also set a new standard for the quality of blockbusters that we as audiences should demand to see more of.
The highly anticipated sequel, directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants), brings us back into the world of Panem where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has recently returned home after winning the 74th Hunger Games with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss has a lot on her mind, including haunting flashbacks from the Games, complicated romantic feelings for her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and a consuming sense of dread that the defiant act that won her the Hunger Games has made her the face of an impending rebellion across the districts. Matters only get worse when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) devises a plan to throw previous Hunger Games victors together to compete in the 75th Games, otherwise known as the 3rd Quarter Quell. Katniss is heading back into the arena.
The plot calls for a slew of new cast members, including Sam Claflin as the charming and enigmatic tribute (and fan favorite) Finnick Odair, Jena Malone as an unhinged and slightly menacing Johanna Mason, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee. All three actors prove to be great casting choices and round out an already strong ensemble of actors. However, it is Jennifer Lawrence who steals the show. With heavier material, Lawrence is able to show a darker, more tortured depth to Katniss. Her natural skill and intuition allow for moments of emotional power that seem devoid of any premeditation, making Katniss a fascinatingly relatable heroine who simultaneously exudes both tenacious strength and authentic vulnerability.
The film features other solid aspects besides the acting, including improvements in costumes and CGI, and the decision to shoot the arena scenes in IMAX. The much larger budget ($130 million to The Hunger Games’ $78 mil) was most likely a huge factor in the film’s overall visual quality and spectacle. Costume designer Trish Summerville (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) gave the Capitol citizens an edgier glamour, while also creating over-the-top numbers for Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) and intricately beautiful pieces worn by Katniss.
As far as CGI goes, the improvement is clearly seen in the wide shots of the Capitol and the various dangers of the arena. For a particular scene involving computer-generated monkeys, Francis Lawrence enlisted the help of Weta, a digital visual effects company responsible for creating the primates seen in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and King Kong. The collaboration resulted in an incredibly suspenseful action sequence that needs to be experienced in IMAX.
Perhaps Catching Fire’s most notable feat is that it serves as a surprisingly faithful adaptation while managing to also be a high-quality film that all audiences can enjoy. Francis Lawrence could have thrown together a passable popcorn flick that would make a ton of money regardless of its merit. However, his deep understanding of the world Suzanne Collins has created in addition to his commitment to a growing fan base have resulted in one of the best films of the year. To reiterate what Lionsgate has been promising in most of the film’s promotional materials, the world will soon be ‘catching fire’ indeed.