A worthy sequel to The Hunger Games (2012), this film continues the adventures of heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), hero Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and more than a few other brave souls as they confront a ruthless, cruel, and conniving dictator and the perils, both physical and moral, in which he places them, their families and their communities. The result is a cinematic tribute to integrity of soul and conscience, to the value of human life, and to the raw courage it takes for anyone to stand up, risk everything, and say to the state, “Enough! Enough with your tyranny over us, your shedding our blood, your setting your bloated elites over us who have so little!” Or as Scripture has it, “Thus far, and no farther.” (Job 38)
Katniss and Peeta are from the poverty-stricken and even starvation-threatened 12th District of the land of Panem, a dictatorship comprising what used to be called North America. Last year they won the 74th Hunger Games, an annual, one-survivor-only fight to the death of two contestants from each district, which the regime mandates as punishment for a rebellion decades ago and as spectacle for the capital city’s glitterati. The final survivors last time, Katniss and Peeta won jointly by being ready to commit suicide together rather than to have one finish the other off. That stymied – and infuriated – the despot, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), who wanted charismatic Katniss dead because he knew she could become a spark that would set off another rebellion among his much-oppressed subjects.
In Catching Fire’s early moments, Snow summons Katniss and threatens to kill her mom (Paula Malcomson) and little sister Prim (Willow Shields) and to wage war against her district unless she becomes a regime propaganda stooge. Just 17 and under this compulsion, she agrees. That cannot and does not last long, because she and Peeta have rebel hearts.
At a public assembly, the two of them go off script and eulogize young friends slain in last year’s Games. They and the crowd now make the bold “Mockingjay” sign Katniss gave last year: the left hand’s three middle fingers raised high. At this mass defiance, regime goons charge the crowd and give the dad of one of the friends a bullet in the back of the head – Communists’ preferred execution method, by the way. Though Katniss and Peeta, under more duress, make feeble attempts at sounding pro-regime at a few more rallies – prompting listeners to yell, “Tell us what you really think!” – the fuse has been lit.
Snow and the honcho of this year’s Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), now plot how to discredit or kill Katniss. On a visit back home she urges her pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to run away with her, but he feels he must be loyal to his hometown. Heavensbee meets Katniss and tells her to abandon her moral judgment – something we know she will not do. But last year, regime public relations started portraying Katniss and Peeta as “star-crossed lovers,” so now she tells Peeta they should go along with that and have a marriage of convenience for the sake of temporary self-preservation.
Things change in a hurry when vicious Commander Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) and his brutal goons raid Katniss’ hometown. Thread has Gale scourged for knocking him down, and he slugs Katniss and gives her a lash. When she stands in front of Gale, Thread threatens to give her another lash, and she replies, “Go ahead.” Her Games mentor and ally Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) intervenes and saves her and Peeta, who has rushed to the scene. Snow, having seen a broadcast of all this, decides he will dispatch Katniss and Peeta by making all victors of past Games fight each other this year.
The past victors naturally see this as a death sentence and a betrayal. They try stratagems to get the Games cancelled. At a broadcast ceremony, Katniss unveils a feathered Mockingjay dress. Peeta’s ploy is to claim to interviewer Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) that he and Katniss were secretly married. When he adds, “If it weren’t for the baby…” the shocked audience, in a beautiful pro-life moment, jumps up and erupts with cries to cancel the Games for the (nonexistent) preborn baby’s sake.
Merciless Snow makes the Games go on. Haymitch reminds Katniss, “Remember who the real enemy is,” meaning Snow. Once the contest begins, the past victors, except for the cruelest, make alliances and hope to somehow stop the killing. Two heroic female entrants sacrifice themselves to save others – although Katniss uncharacteristically says about one, “That doesn’t make sense.”
Now-desperate Katniss, expert archer to the end, attaches an electrical cable to one of her arrows and fires away at the barely visible gargantuan metal grid that hangs over the Games’ entire setting. This causes a massive short circuit that destroys the grid and cuts off all power to the capital – including Games central, where Snow turns to Heavensbee for help only to find him gone.
SPOILER ALERT: Katniss, knocked out by the electrical cataclysm, awakens to find herself in a giant hovercraft – skyhook! – with Haymitch, Heavensbee, and others. Heavensbee announces that he is a rebel and many of the others are, too. “This is the revolution,” he says. “You are the Mockingjay” – the face of the revolt. Katniss, however, becomes enraged when Haymitch reveals that he was unable to save Peeta as he had promised – that Peeta and ally Johanna (Jena Malone) are prisoners in the capital.
Leftists see the Hunger Games films’ themes as the poor against the rich. That is true, of course, but for the best examples of that, they should take off the blinders and see the untold tens of millions of people, most of them poor, whom Communist regimes have tortured, murdered, enslaved, and starved to death. The powerful visuals in The Hunger Games series serve as reminders of the predilection of all tyrannous regimes, from the French Revolution to Pyongyang to Nuremberg, to intimidate and control through stark and violent spectacle. They hold sway because their systems elevate the collective, in all its myriad forms, and treat individual human life as so much dross.
The MPAA rating for this movie: “PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a [gratuitous and highly] suggestive situation and language.” Francis Lawrence directed. Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik were the producers. Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn wrote the screenplay. The film is based on Suzanne Collins’ 2009 novel, Catching Fire. James Newton Howard was the composer and Jo Willems the cinematographer.
— Dan Engler