In the future, everyone will have silly names. Some people will be called Haymitch Abernathy. Others will be Effie Trinket or Finnick Odair. And they’ll all live in various districts, numbered from one to 12. And because those districts rebelled against the ruling regime that one time, their children might be selected for an annual televised extravaganza called the Hunger Games. It’s a bit like school sports day, only bloodier. The kids have to kill each other with an excruciating variety of sharp implements. The winner is the one who doesn’t end up with a spear through their neck — and all glory be to them.
Or at least that’s what I learnt from The Hunger Games (2012). Now there’s a sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which continues the story of the girl with a silly name, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who won the Hunger Games last time around. But more importantly: I’m only one-and-a-half paragraphs into this review, and I’ve already written ‘Hunger Games’ five times. Hunger Games, Hunger Games, Hunger Games. This is what life must be like for those of you with children who have read the exorbitantly popular books behind these films. Mummy, can we go see The Hunger Games movie, pleeeeease? Daddy, did you know Katniss has become a symbol of hope to the oppressed people of Panem?
But the rest of us may need some time to catch up. So, yes: after the first film, Katniss has become a symbol of hope to the oppressed people of Panem. She and another corner of her love triangle, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), defied the system by almost committing suicide at the end of the last games. Now, they’re being toured around the country as victors, forced to wear smiles on their faces, lest the state hurt their families.
As set-ups for sequels go, it’s quite a promising one. It has simmering romance, simmering revolution and simmering death — so something’s bound to boil over. Except, in Catching Fire, nothing really does. What happens, instead, is a virtual rerun of the first film. The state, angered by Katniss’s popularity, soon contrives to organise a special Hunger Games for former winners. This ‘third Quarter Quell’ not only demonstrates that their affection for weird words stretches beyond their own names, it also locks the film into a structure that we’ve seen before. First Act: in which Katniss spends some time with her family back home. Second Act: in which Katniss is trained and whirled before the television cameras. Third Act: in which Katniss is dropped into the games, and somehow beats them.
The film does as much with its dissimilarities as it can. It is, in the spirit of The Empire Strikes Back (1985), darker than what came before. The games take place in a tropical forest rather than a normal forest. But, generally, the dissimilarities are so minor that Catching Fire plays like a big budget game of spot-the-difference. Oh, look, Lenny Kravitz is giving Katniss a pep talk before she’s elevated into the arena. That’s just like the last film, except this time he’s clubbed around the head by government goons.
Catching Fire also retains certain flaws from the first film and, I assume, the books. Its dystopia, for instance, is a place that numerous films have visited before, where the enforcers wear visors, the rich people totter around beneath outrageous wigs, and all the revolutionaries are handsome. But I don’t want to sound too down on it. After all, this film also shares its predecessor’s many strengths, especially when it comes to the cast. Lawrence, as always, is plain brilliant — here she does a Clint Eastwood, managing to be both quiet and forcefully charismatic at the same time. And then there’s Donald Sutherland, playing the bad guy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, kind of playing the bad guy. None of these actors patronises the material.
Besides, this film contains some of the most brutal and memorable sequences you’ll see all year — including one in which a poisonous fog chases our heroes down a hill, blistering them with every touch. It’s straight out of a horror movie, and it shows that, taking over from Gary Ross, the new director Francis Lawrence is more than adequate for future sequels.
And future sequels there will be. Catching Fire twists itself into a neat ending which suggests that things really will catch fire in the next film. That’s its joy: it sets up a roaring conclusion. And it’s also its sorrow: it feels like a preview for what’s to come. Bring on the future in which Hoowitch Van Pumpkinstilts garrotes Daffy O’Deen for his lunch money.