Having survived the 74th Annual Hunger Games – a fight to the death between teenage tributes, orchestrated by a vile dictatorship – along with local baker’s boy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), we begin Catching Fire with heroine Katniss Everdeen (the now Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence) returning safely home to the poverty-stricken District 12. Unfortunately, surviving the Games also means that the pair are obliged to embark on a ‘Victor’s Tour’ of the other beleaguered districts. As incendiary whispers of a rebellion against the all-powerful Capitol and its malicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) begin to catch alight, Katniss and Peeta must fight for their lives a second time in the 75th Hunger Games – the ‘Quarter Quell’ – at the behest of Snow.
Plagued by dreams of cold-blooded murder, this certainly isn’t the same Katniss that volunteered for the Hunger Games in place of younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) only a year ago. Tired and fatigued by the Capitol’s X-Factor-style victory circuit (with Elizabeth Banks’ grotesque Vivienne Westwood harlequin Effy in tow once more), she longs to elope with bona fide love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) in spite of the untold harm that would befall both of their families courtesy of the vindictive Snow. With Catching Fire, director Lawrence certainly isn’t afraid to bide his time and build anticipation for the truly spectacular (and tropical-tinged) Quarter Quell, patiently reestablishing crucial relationships for maximum dramatic pay-off.
Once amidst the Quell – where the collective winners from the last quarter must battle – the thrills come thick and fast. One particularly harrowing surprise recalls both Hitchcock’s The Birds and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven; no mean feat for a $140 million franchise sequel. Other threats are just as hazardous (if not quite as nightmarish), leaving the genetically modified tracker jackers from the first film looking like harmless fruit flies in comparison. But what of the other past victors? New to the party are Sam Clafin’s gloriously narcissistic Finnick Odair, Johanna Mason’s anarchic Jena Malone and Jeffrey Wright’s tech-savvy Beetee, each of whom capture the essence of Collins’ vets with aplomb. Best of the newcomers, however, is Philip Seymour Hoffman as new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, adding gravitas to Catching Fire’s fresh-faced ensemble.
As with Ross’ initial chapter, it’s Jennifer Lawrence who again deserves the plaudits for her blazing performance as Katniss. Uncompromisingly forceful yet also intelligent enough to realise her evolving role as an instrument in a game of “moves and counter-moves”, Lawrence seems to thrive on her newfound stardom both on and off camera. Some of Catching Fire’s darkest comic moments come from Everdeen’s disdain for all things Capitol, from the ridiculously outlandish neo-Victorian costumes to their vile compulsion for purging food – to make room for more. Such lofty dystopian concepts are certainly nothing new, but as with the first Hunger Games, there aren’t many blockbuster sequels with half the guile, half the wit or half the heart of what we’re treated to here.