Middle sections in any preordained trilogy are a tricky proposition, there is no real beginning and for sure there can’t be an end without a sense of anticipation. However if constructed with enough care and attention to detail, they can provide some of the most effective twists and turns the plot can conjure.
When we first saw District 12 it was a poverty ridden yet lush region, now however right at the beginning of the movie, winter truly has arrived in every sense of the way. The snow covers the ground and as far as the eye can see, the grime and dirt clings to everything and everyone, where there was an uneasy mixture of helplessness and a flicker of hope, now lies only a sense of desolation and desperation. Katniss’s (Jennifer Lawrence) participation and unexpected victory in the 74th Hunger Games may have been driven more by protecting her loved ones and a sense of sheer survival; however her actions of defiance during the games have had far reaching effects on the rest of the districts, acting as a catalyst for rebellion. Left with no choice but to quell the pockets of dissent, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) tries to mix diplomacy with dictatorship. So on one hand he sanctions genocide by his ‘peacekeepers’ and on the other, threatens Katniss with dire consequences unless she along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) continue their romantic facade and go on a tour of all the districts to act as a goodwill ambassador for the Capitol. Though Katniss reluctantly agrees, she finds it difficult to subvert her real emotions when on tour people from the districts expect her to be their beacon of hope and instead find her to be simply Snow’s stooge. Things really take a turn for the worse when Snow announces the Quarter Quell, a special edition of the Hunger Games that takes places every twenty five years drawing it’s participants from the pool of past winners. So yet again Peeta and Katniss find themselves in a struggle to stay alive, only this time, the opponents are way smarter than ever before, the new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a master tactician and the arena filled with more dangers than ever. Plus this time it’s simply not just about survival but keeping hope alive and facing the demons that Katniss has been trying to hide from.
Catching Fire treats the arena as a necessary evil and instead for much of its initial running length chooses to focus on the emotional cost borne by most of the characters. Katniss finds keeping up the romantic facade with Peeta under the constant gaze of not just the Capitol government propaganda machinery but also her real sweetheart, Gale. Thankfully the love triangle is handled maturely and the characters provide genuine reasons to care about them. Scenes of dissidents being subverted by the peacekeepers are heart wrenching and in one particular instance of an impromptu execution, quite shocking.
The second half of the movie is devoted to the tournament which is brutally staged by Snow and Plutarch with the sole aim of engineering the death of Katniss thus extinguishing the flame that keeps the rebellion alive. Katniss does find a slew of allies and with their limited screen time, most of them are pretty well fleshed out. However with the game beginning the movie loses the thread of its socio-political ambitions set up in the first half and instead rehashes elements from the first movie to amble towards its ending. There is little to reflect upon the carnage within the arena. Each time the cannon went off in the first one announcing the death of a contestant, a sense of gloom and dread prevailed whether it was friend or foe, here however the same event brings no such emotion and when images of the fallen are broadcast in the skies, it seems almost prosaic. This was where I felt the second one faltered compared to the original, it takes more on its plate than it can actually handle. The first one was a far more personal struggle where Katniss fought every inch to stay alive, here’s she’s nearly given up but is propped up more so thanks to the schemes of others. Even in the face of insurmountable odds in this movie you know she’s going to make it, not because Katniss wills it but because the plot needs her to. It makes a few sacrifices in logic to keep things moving and after knowing the final twist, though unexpected, makes you wonder why some of the characters didn’t show more intelligence. On the technical front it is a standout, cinematography, the sombre tone, an evocative background score and impressive set and costume design coupled with improved special effects make it a very handsomely mounted product.
Jennifer Lawrence brings out the vulnerabilities and frustration of the character quite well while Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta displays a strong sense of morality. Sutherland gets a terrific little monologue early on and Harrelson makes an impact yet again. Of the newcomers, Sam Clafin seems initially like he’s going to come off as a colossal pick but ends up walking the fine line between arrogance and sincerity quite nicely. Jena Malone gets perhaps the showiest character and literally chews up the scenery with her ferocity while Jeffery Wright underplays his to the hilt.
‘Catching Fire’ is a worthy sequel that builds upon the themes and characters introduced in its predecessor, however it’s wobbly plot in the second half fails to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the movie which leave you feeling kind of underwhelmed and yet anticipating the next chapter in the story.