The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: spoiler-free review

One of the weird things about getting older is the sense that you have read all the stories in the newspaper before. I had a similar experience while watching the dreadful trailers that came on before Catching Fire. Why is it that every fantasy movie these days looks like the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

Thankfully, there is nothing clichéd about the second instalment of The Hunger Games. The film opens without credits and without blaring music. We meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in contemplative mood in the cold Northern woods as she ponders her new-found fame and the undesired role that has been thrust upon her.

The Hunger Games is set in a future USA, divided into zones. The super-rich live a debauched and privileged existence like the aristocrats at the fall of Rome. Meanwhile Katniss’ people are trapped in a kind of giant gulag, where they struggle to find enough to eat in a bleak industrial wasteland. The games themselves take place in a tropical dome, where beautiful beaches and rainforests conceal peril at every turn.

The world feels real. In the same way, the issues are broad-brush, but deep. The Hunger Games has a relentless focus on how the media and entertainment industries are just a pawn to maintain public acceptance of their lot. Meanwhile, the people’s rights are being gradually whittled away. Eventually, drunk on their own power, the authorities sink to outright repression in their desperation to keep the poor in their place.

The films are much cleverer than that initial premise implies. Suzanne Collins is a crafty plotter and I had the sense that she was always one step ahead of the audience. That’s not something you can say about a lot of films these days. The week before, I saw Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which was excellent but still relied on a tired old cliché to get the plot moving (“gasp, he’s having an affair – we’re in the car, he can’t see us and doesn’t know we know, oh he’s kissed her, so it must be true” etc, etc.).

There is a love triangle in Catching Fire too, but it is handled sensitively and with real style. Katniss’s  predicament reminded me of the old Stephen Stills song, “If you can’t be now with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with”.

Catching Fire is an example of perfect cinema. There is violence but it is never gratuitous. When people die, it has tragic consequences. There is romance, but without overt nudity. Anyone could go and see this film and be entertained throughout. It has old-fashioned strengths such as characters you relate to, a strong plot, an intelligent story, and a first-class villain in President Snow. Donald Sutherland clearly revels in his role as the world’s dictatorial ruler.

If I have one gripe with the movie, it is only a very small one. It’s just that light-hearted moments are few and far between. I know this is drama, but if I’m going to have to sit in the cinema for almost two and a half hours, is it too much to ask for a bit of comic banter, or failing that, just a simple joke?

Moaning over, I loved Catching Fire, the second part of The Hunger Games, and I can’t wait to see parts three and four (the final book is to be split into two films).