You've given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.

You’ve given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.

So much of life is a game. Every day, people from all walks of life need to make choices outside of themselves in an effort to score some points and get ahead. They aren’t doing what they want to do so much as they’re doing what they need to do for a larger goal. It’s not a position most people want to be in, but somehow a select few manage to find a way to stay true to themselves and get the jump on other players.

These select few, can take a game and turn it to their own advantage.

It’s one year after the events of THE HUNGER GAMES. Catniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is back home in District 12, although she’s traded in her humble cottage for a swank home amongst the other surviving winners from her district – both of them. She still holds tight to the lie that she is in love with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a lie that he is complicit in, even though we can see he wishes it were true.

As the winning Tributes from the previous games, Katniss and Peeta are sent on a victory tour throughout the districts of Panem. Before they are dispatched, Katniss is approached by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who pulls no punches in underlining his dissatisfaction with her dissent. He makes it very plain that what she did to stay alive is being seen by many as defiance, and that defiance is spreading. He puts it to her to be a beacon – to be a model citizen of Panem while on the victory tour, otherwise there will be serious consequences.

His instructions are in vain.

As Peeta and Katniss move from district to district, they can see how deeply Panem has latched on to them, and how the unrest towards the greed of The Capitol has grown. As the tour goes on, they see innocent people get tussled, tortured, and terminated, while they get pulled away to get to the next stop. Almost at the moment they begin to wonder what they have gotten themselves into, Snow and his new gameskeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pull the rug out from under them:

The next Hunger Games is a Quarter Quell, where anything goes. So this time around, The Capitol decides to reap its competitors from the living Tributes in each district. Meaning that Katniss and Peeta are headed right back into the arena to fight.

Peeta and Katniss

Last year when THE HUNGER GAMES hit theatres, I found myself quite smitten with the way it was able to execute. Like many films at the multiplex these days, it was based on a young adult novel. However, unlike so many of those other properties that wither on the vine, THE HUNGER GAMES was able to transcend its base and craft itself into a fully-formed movie. So it should go without saying that I was equally smitten that the film’s sequel was able to deliver once again, and even improve on the original film in certain respects.

The greatest improvement is easily the world-building. In the original film, there were many details left unexplained about the society Panem has built itself into. The full scope of its poverty and the tight grip of its dictatorship were only painted in the broadest of strokes. While fans of the book were able to fill in the gaps, this led to the film being short-sold to any newcomers. In CATCHING FIRE, both the state of the nation and how things have changed since the end of THE HUNGER GAMES feel like priority-one. The film spends more than half of its running time laying out the way of the world, and likewise showing the ripple-effect of what has happened.

Throughout THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss played the part of passive revolutionary. She and her team took whatever opportunity they could to quietly defy the government that forced them into this bloodsport-for-entertainment. However, it never seems to take much for a protest to turn into a riot. So this time around, the film takes great pains to underline the consequences of throwing three fingers in the air. It knows that the best way to affect our heroes is to take aim at those they care about…those whose suffering will have a deeper impact on our protagonists because they know they’re being punished harder for their association. The film knows how compelling this situation is, which is why it chooses to spend more time on it than it does showing the games themselves.

This time around, our main two heroes feel a little more fleshed out than they did at first. There has long been mentions of Katniss being a somewhat surly girl; socially awkward and always seemingly like she’d rather be somewhere else. Jennifer Lawrence has tapped into that a bit deeper this time. She plays the character as very untrusting and usually stand-offish, helped in large part by this PR tour she now has to take part in. Watching her and listening to her as she has to be a marketing tool for The Capitol, you get the sense she’d rather have lost the games entirely than win and get on-board this never-ending merry-go-round.

Likewise, we’re able to get a better grip on Peeta. Josh Hutcherson never has to do anything tremendously complicated with the part, but he does have to remain likeable. No easy feat considering that he too is part of this same circus. Hutcherson nails it though. He embodies a selfless boy who is in a lousy situation. He cares for a girl that doesn’t love him back – a situation many of us have been in. However, because their relationship has become part of District 12’s PR, he has to continue playing up the lie. In doing so, he makes us want to reach out for him; a boy who is too polite to call “bullshit” on the whole act, instead continually trying to make the best of it.

All of these interesting elements are what CATCHING FIRE does best. The film knows that, and wisely uses 2/3 of its runtime on them, downplaying the return into the games arena. This world might have been built on a premise of children fighting one another in bloodsport, but it’s the politics and spin of the situation that makes for a better story. Governments have long used their heroes to advance their own agendas, and it often goes against the heroes’ leanings or legacy. They take living, breathing people, and turn them into a symbol for something better.

In the face of this, the best thing a hero can do is become a symbol for something else.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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