Film Review: ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

Hunger Games Catching Fire

The revolutionary spirit of Suzanne Collins' young-adult novels flares bright as Francis Lawrence takes the helm of the 'Hunger Games' franchise.

The Hunger Games” featured kids killing kids for sport. Its sequel, the far superior “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” rewrites the rules, which not only makes for a more exciting death match, but also yields a rich sociopolitical critique in the process, in keeping with the incendiary subtext of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel. Though technically just the bridge between the lower-budget original and the two-part finale still to come, in director Francis Lawrence’s steady hands (gone are the previous film’s needlessly spastic camera moves), “Catching Fire” makes for rousing entertainment in its own right, leaving fans riled and ready to storm the castle. Massive international interest should leave Lionsgate with coffers full and money to burn.

If “Catching Fire” were a traditional studio sequel, one could reasonably expect a bigger, bloodier elimination contest to take centerstage — more of the same, presumably amplified by the extra $50 million or so Lionsgate poured into the budget this time around. Instead, this film hews to the model established by the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises, where fidelity to the source material takes precedence, allowing this fictional world to grow deeper and more complex with each successive installment.

PHOTOS: ‘Catching Fire’ Premieres in London

Unlike the authors of those book series, Collins got her start in screenwriting, which might explain her almost instinctively cinematic sense of storytelling, in which characters and scenes are described so vividly, fans can scarcely wait to see how they will be translated onscreen. On that level — and despite its hefty $691 million worldwide  haul — “The Hunger Games” was a disappointment, clumsily shot and strangely cast (Jennifer Lawrence was nearly a decade too old, while Josh Hutcherson was hardly the stocky baker’s son readers had pictured).

Good, then, that the reins have passed from “Hunger Games” helmer Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence — a director with a firm grasp of large-canvas filmmaking, equally skilled at tense, white-knuckle sci-fi (“I Am Legend”) and bald, unapologetic romance (as evidenced by his excellent yet underseen circus swooner, “Water for Elephants”). Both qualities come strongly into play here, as the director finds the perfect balance between emotion and excitement.

SEE ALSO: ‘Catching Fire’ on Track for Mega $150 Million Debut

Fortunes have changed significantly for Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) since the starvation days of life in District 12. Making good on Scarlett O’Hara’s vow, she and her clan will never be hungry again, thanks to a shrewd move that forced the game-makers to accept both her and fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) as winners. The country’s corrupt figurehead, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), doesn’t take kindly to being outwitted, however, and his latest scheme to keep the people of Panem in check will pit the survivors of previous Hunger Games against one another.

The story opens as Katniss and Peeta make their victory tour, during which they are permitted not only to observe how the other 11 districts live, but also to glimpse the nascent signs of rebellion throughout the country (an unspecified portion of the United States set in a not-so-distant future, ably represented by location shooting in Atlanta). Having defied the capital once already, the couple signifies hope to all those who feel oppressed, just as their story galvanizes real-world auds into feeling the same way.

More than half the film unfolds before the 75th annual Hunger Games actually begin. Much of that time is spent expanding our understanding of this ruthlessly oppressive society and raising the stakes for the uprising in store. As the couple’s CG train zips between districts, we see how Snow’s stormtroopers buckle down on what little freedom remains, offset by the empty frivolity of life in the capital — a nonstop binge-and-purge banquet where wild hairstyles and lavish costume changes provide distraction from an idle existence.

This is Oz reimagined as a fascist state, nearly all of its color drained to an overcast brown-gray. It may seem like a small thing, but choosing the right costume designer makes an enormous impact on the new film, as Trish Summerville (2011’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) crafts a stunning array of fashions to reflect the citizens’ show-offy attitudes (including a dress made entirely of monarch butterflies). Clothing plays a central role in Collins’ books, and finally, the crew seems capable of bringing her elaborate costumes to life, including the impossible-sounding wedding dress Katniss wears to her big TV interview.

Since many “Hunger Games” fans hang on every such detail, director Lawrence paces the film accordingly, giving audiences time to take it all in, even if it means delaying the big arena showdown they’ve presumably all come to see. The film does breeze through Katniss’ visit to the victors’ housing, which might have yielded a bit more insight into the lifestyle she and Peeta could have hoped to enjoy, had Snow and replacement game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, a casting coup) not found a way to pull them back in.

Instead, the reigning champs meet their fellow survivors in the training arena, forging alliances with the five people least likely to improve their chances in an all-pro slaughter. There’s pretty-boy hustler Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, devilishly charming) and his octogenarian mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), an irrepressible rebel named Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), and a pair of odd-ball inventors whom everyone calls Nuts and Volts (Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright, looking like escapees from a Terry Gilliam movie).

By emphasizing the tentative trust among these seven characters, as opposed to simply stirring up another every-child-for-herself battle royale, “Catching Fire” lays the groundwork for the ambitious next chapter — operating as a close-knit team in order to effect change — and introduces friends too dear to eliminate. Still, it’s not as if this installment skimps on violence. Rather, the threats come in many new forms this time around, from poison fog to bloody rain. As in Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story “The Veldt,” this exotic arena boasts its own sinister agenda, unleashing fresh challenges upon the combatants at the top of every hour.

As before, the central duo strikes a balance between survival and selflessness, as Katniss and Peeta prioritize others’ lives before their own. Though far older at 23 than the wide-eyed 16-year-old described in the book, Jennifer Lawrence masterfully conveys the character’s naivete, while bringing a strength and resolve no preteen actor possibly could. In the time since the first movie, she has become a bona fide star, which suits a character who feels overwhelmed by her own celebrity.

Behind Collins’ bestseller lies a shrewd social commentary. In “The Hunger Games,” the author turned an exploitation premise on its head, challenging the public to reconcile their moral outrage over a bad-taste killing contest with the bloodlust they felt in wanting to see Katniss survive. Here, she reveals how widespread media exposure can be used to subvert the status quo, even as she dismantles the allure of fame, the hollow goal to which so many young people aspire.

With its pseudo-war-photography shooting style, the first film played jittery tag-along witness to Katniss’ ordeal. By taming the camera and focusing on the emotional truth of each highly charged moment, the director and d.p. Jo Willems (“Limitless”) invite us into Katniss’ head, which is where the first-person books unfolded. Through her eyes, Peeta’s sacrifices seem even more noble (crucial for the big twist to work in the upcoming “Mockingjay”), the threats that much more immediate.

In Imax, the widescreen aspect ratio expands to fill the entire screen during the Hunger Games portion of the film, though it’s an unnecessary boost, as helmer Lawrence and his team have calibrated the entire experience for maximum engagement. And while its pleasures can’t touch the thrill of seeing the Death Star destroyed — not yet, at least — the film runs circles around George Lucas’ ability to weave complex political ideas into the very fabric of B-movie excitement.

Film Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15 Imax, Los Angeles, Nov. 11, 2013. (In Rome Film Festival — noncompeting.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 146 MIN.


A Lionsgate release and presentation of a Color Force/Lionsgate production. Produced by Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik. Executive producers, Suzanne Collins, Louise Rosner-Meyer, Joe Drake, Allison Shearmur. Co-producer, Bryan Unkeless.


Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay, Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Camera (color, widescreen), Jo Willems; editor, Alan Edward Bell; music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas; production designer, Philip Messina; supervising art director, John Collins; art directors, Robert Fechtman, Adam Davis; set decorator, Larry Dias; costume designer, Trish Summerville; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Mark Weingarten; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Skip Lievsay, Jeremy Peirson; sound designer, Peirson; visual effects supervisor, Janek Sirrs; visual effects producer, Mitchell Ferm; visual effects, Double Negative, Weta Digital, Method Studios, Rodeo FX, Fuel VFX, Hybride; special effects coordinator, Steve Cremin; supervising stunt coordinator, Chad Stahelski; stunt coordinator, Sam Hargrave; assistant director, Aldric La'auli Porter; second unit director, Chad Stahelski; second unit camera, Robby Baumgartner; casting, Debra Zane.


Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Jack Quaid, Taylor St. Clair, Sandra Lafferty, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Bruce Bundy, Nelson Ascencio, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright.

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  1. Jamie says:

    A banal, exciting, disturbing theatre of the macabre. Why? Because in 2020 it could possibly happen. We should be scared !!

    • chad says:

      Hunger Games is unwittingly a test pilot-show to see if kids killing kids was permissible and desired. They got their answer.

      • A welcome positive review. Some film critics miss the point that this is a movie, mostly faithfully from a book, for adolescents/young adults and adults. Without the broad subject matter and without the spectacle of The Hunger Games there may not have been enough to draw in as demographically wide an audience which can then be provoked by the content and subject matter.

        The age of Jennifer Lawrence need not be in question – she is simply magnificent in the role and it seems unlilkely the character of Katniss would be as endearing and likeable, nor the cliffhanger ending so jarring – afterall we leave our heroine out of jeopardy but emotionally overwhelmed, had another actor been given the role.

  2. Erv Johnson says:

    ““The Hunger Games” featured kids killing kids for sport.”

    It is statements like the above that makes me seldom read reviews. The above statement could not be farther from the truth.

    • chadk says:

      If by “for sport” you mean whimsy on the part of the kids, no. But, it is for sport. The ruling elite more-or-less said, “I have invented a tournament where kids kill kids for our sport, for our amusement, for sport. I call it the Hunger Games.”

  3. Joseph Redmond says:

    I’m an old film exhibitor, and Debruge’s take on the second ‘ Hunger Games ‘–“Catching Fire “., has me looking forward to something special and a lot more than a good popcorn flick.

  4. David says:

    THE HUNGER GAMES was filmed in May/June 2011, when Jennifer Lawrence was 20. That makes her 4 years too old, not 10. And being 16 make you a teen not a preteen. If you’re going to obsess over age, at least get it right.

  5. Bill says:

    The comment “kids killing kids for sport” is disingenuous at best.

    It is not the kids who are enjoying the killing but rather they are forced into it lest their families be killed as a way of the government suppressing rebellion.

    If you want to see kids killing kids for sport, look at any street gang.

    • chadk says:

      You can’t just stop at the perspective of the kids and say it is not a sport. From the perspective of the elites who invented the hunger games, it is for their amusement, their sport. Also, the throngs of millions of fellow citizens who whoop and cheer don’t sound too left out. Complete with pre-show, hoopla and sponsors. Think of gladiators. If the line had read, “Hunger Games features kids killing kids for bloodsport.” There would be no confusion. Child cockfighting.

  6. Dennis says:

    I thought “Underwater for Elephants” was boring, poorly cast and dragged as a film. Not read the book, but the translation must’ve been lost in the mix. Alas, you know what they say about films and books.

  7. I have to take issue with the ‘jerky camera’ snark…the reason the camera was jerky was during the initial bloodbath. The producers were already being watched like hawks by the frothing at the mouth Harry Potter is the Devil parent’s groups because of the books premise…so they depicted the slaughter with those jerky movements. That way the audience would get caught up in the action, and understand what was going on…without the producers being accused of ‘glorifying’ the massacre.
    Walking the line they had to walk with the story line is probably the main reason this movie was as restrained as it was….had they not been worried about the parents groups, and been able to move about a little more freely, I bet the movie would have been even better.

  8. hvsteve1 says:

    A series of hit films aimed at kids…about kids killing other kids for sport. Can anyone reading Variety imagine this premise not being controversial a few decades back. I don’t know if this speaks well or poorly about where the industry and society has gone.

    • The books are NOT for kids, if by kids you mean the Harry Potter set. These books are for young adults…and in the section marked as such. Young adults, these days, who see PG13 and yes, even R rated movies…and to whom violence is not such a foreign entity.

    • Ali Miller says:

      The books are a critique of society, media, and our culture’s desensitization to violence. A rather obvious critique at that. It continues to surprise me that people miss this point.

      • chadk says:

        Human Centipede was particularly insightful and helps me reflect on the state of our society. Great. So you can just make a movie about anything horrid and excuse it by saying that it is a critique of today’s desensitization to horrid things ? The Hunger Games is about a world of adults co-operating to make a movie about kids killing kids. That’s a commentary on society.

  9. U cant B Sirius says:

    Most of these comments are missing the heart of this review. It sounds like this film, one day, may take it’s place beside “OZ”! Especially if the series can maintain the standard this segment represents. I’m NOT a fan either. Haven’t read the books! BUT “wow” THIS REVIEW just got me “interested.” This reviewer makes the film seem a “must see” and “not to be missed” EVENT.
    TWO on the AISLE please!!

  10. guest says:

    The monarch dress is Alexander McQueen.

  11. Anny K says:

    Wow! Your review is so amazing, It makes me want to see the film now more than ever. And I’m not a fan in the least.

  12. Mewoth says:

    Uhm, Lawrence is not a decade older than Katniss?? She was 20/21 when the first film was shot and Katniss is 16 in the first book… plus 4-5 years too old is hardly uncommon for Hollywood!

  13. George Valentin says:

    I can’t wait to see Katniss again!

  14. lea says:

    Katniss is 16 in the books not 12. Her little sister Prim was 12. Katniss turns 17 halfway through the second book.

  15. chad says:

    Your .htm’s are exceeded only by your .html’s. My your code be complete, your tags be even in number and your javascripts be joyous.

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