Our valiant heroine is about to embark on a nationwide tour to quell rumours that the suicidal act of defiance threatened by herself and Peter (Josh Hutcherson) was not a rebellious attempt to mobilise the proletariat by exposing the futility of the games, but rather a declaration of true love. However, Katniss is unable to toe the company line whilst thousands of innocent people are subjugated. This forces the hand of Panam’s dogmatic and authoritarian leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to construct a unique version of the games – the ‘Quarter Quell’ – where past winners from each district are pitted against one another in a battle royal for survival.
The first half of Catching Fire focuses on the love triangle between Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Pater, and how it’s manipulated in a dystopian future where celebrity remains a powerful tool of societal control. This initial study about how media influence can divert a rebellious uprising makes for fascinating viewing, with governmental spin doctoring and the role of celebrity imbuing effortlessly with the previous film’s satirical critique on the opiate-like qualities of reality television. Jennifer Lawrence’s newfound role as an Academy darling adds some authenticity to Katniss’ unwelcome stardom, whilst Francis Lawrence’s bleak vision of life in the outer districts captures the austerity and hopelessness of a world bled of its own vitality.
It’s a shame, then, that Catching Fire’s intrusive score and lingering, sorrowful close-ups over-egg proceedings, somewhat nullifying this oppressive mood. The film’s pace quickens rapidly once we’re thrust into the Quarter Quell, but instead of building on the themes presented in the first half of film, Lawrence is left to contend with Collins’ need to get Katniss and Peta back in the arena. This gratuitous attempt to advance the plot feels underwhelming, as if the narrative is resting on its blood-stained laurels. Thankfully, Lawrence manages to maintain the audience’s attention through some deft set-pieces that more often than not succeed in their attempts to excite. A collection of B-movie delights, such as a howling murder of birds and a noxious poisonous mist, create a genuine sense of peril.
Whilst commendable for its attempts to remain true to Collins’ source material, Lawrence’s directorial approach leaves those unfamiliar with the novels needlessly confused. Some of this confusion is deliberate, intended to mask the characters’ intentions. Yet, for the most part, it’s the result of a precarious balancing act between exhilarating action and plot development. After a thought-provoking intro, Catching Fire’s uneasy reliance on repetition leaves a disappointing after taste. Credit should go to Lawrence, however, for managing to keep us (just) on board; let’s just hope this trust is rewarded when the next entry in the Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014), arrives later this year (November TBC).