BY MAX ASAYESH-BROWN
St. Petersburg High
It's difficult to say which triumph stuns more — the elevated caliber of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire in relation to their respective source material or the mystery of how this gift transcended two directors. Francis Lawrence picks up where previous director Gary Ross left off, leaving no scent of transition.
For those unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins' young adult bestsellers, Catching Fire follows Hunger Games victor Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a character too cunning for her own good, as she contends with the implications her smarts have in the fragile dictatorship of Panem. It's on this track that the second installment follows the first — not a game of cat-and-mouse, but more akin to chess, each devious party taking calculated steps to get the edge on one another.
Katniss made it out of the arena atop 22 dead teenage bodies by tugging on the heartstrings of Capitol viewers, engaging in a publicity-driven romance with fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). This artificial relationship has now turned into a sort of unpleasant business partnership as she attempts to pick up the pieces with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a truer love interest back at home. The colorful monsters of the Capitol are ready to eat it up, but the repressed districts don't buy it, and are on the road to uprising, recognizing Katniss as a symbol of rebellion.
Under the thumb of President Snow (an acute and icy Donald Sutherland) Katniss is running out of options. Those who remember the first film will experience some deja vu, such as Katniss gaining public sympathy on a stage with Stanley Tucci, who returns as the tackily delightful master of ceremonies. Tucci is airbrushed so golden brown I don't know whether to laugh with him or baste him on the hour. Woody Harrelson, charming, wise and continuously fun to watch, returns as Katniss and Peeta's mentor Haymitch, and newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman takes on the role of the cleverly unscrupulous gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee.
Jennifer Lawrence and her ensemble's near-flawless acting chops — with the exception, perhaps, of Hutcherson's puppy-dog performance that fails to impress — are one piece of an extensive list of moving parts that make Catching Fire a film of towering achievement. Addressing the protracted and somewhat sluggish exposition of the novel with style, the film captures the hope, hazard and alignment of the two associated with totalitarian society hanging by a thread — in a contemporary fashion alien to the series.
The new crew continues to bring realism to the premise of a fantasy. Katniss begins the film in a turkey trot with Gale, hunting meager game despite her recent success in the annual televised massacre that in turn ensured her financial security indefinitely. Suddenly, her arrow lands in a teenage boy's torso; it's a hallucination but her hysterics scare off the birds as she's reminded that the first Games did to her what she promised they wouldn't. Seems fitting, as the Hunger Games themselves have been a reminder since their inception — of the power held by the Capitol and threatened by rebellion, including but not limited to the annihilation of another district.
The chilly realism doesn't end there, which is saying something when half the film's plot comes from the repetition of a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. Hoffman, stony and shrewd, keeps temperatures low in the theater as he and Snow challenge Katniss to "convince" them that love trumps defiance, that she's one of them and is thus worth hating. Watching Catching Fire is effortless. You don't have to read the books or even have watched the previous movie. The series has lost any semblance of shtick, despite outward appearances. It doesn't take much doing to watch broken characters fight to stay human, even if there's not much inventing.
Max Asayesh-Brown is a junior at St. Pete High and a tb-two* music critic.