“Heroes are made, not born,” or so the saying goes, but what does it actually mean to be a hero, or a heroine for that matter? Is it defined by what you do, or is it merely what people think you’ve done? Or maybe even what you stand for? For the protagonists of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), all three are equally dangerous in the eyes of their tyrannical capital of Panem, because the truth doesn’t matter, only the games do.
The games are, of course, the titular Hunger Games, whose participation is a death sentence disguised as a great honor, designed to quell the hope of an uprising in the 12 districts that make up this melding of dystopian/social allegory. Catching Fire picks up right after the two champions have returned home, alive, but scarred by their experience in the 74th Hunger Games and dealing with the aftermath of the Romeo and Juliet-esque masquerade they adopted in order to turn the citizens of the capital to their side. When news comes that a special “Quarter Quell” is being held that will recall winners from past tournaments, Katniss and Peeta are forced to face even deadlier games where the Capital has the perfect chance to get rid of both of them.
Whereas The Hunger Games primarily scrutinized celebrity worship as a kind of dark mirror to our own world, Catching Fire illustrates how Katniss and Peeta’s survival has given the people hope and is rapidly breeding a revolution that she’s terrified of being a part of. She is placed in a position of equally great influence and great vulnerability by events that have been no fault of her own, and during the course of the movie she struggles to keep the ones she loves safe while still practicing her own method of resistance.
As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence displays the same vulnerability and determination that first caught the public eye in the similarly dystopic Winter’s Bone. As a heroine she is inspiring in her courage, resourcefulness, and resilience, and yet it is Lawrence’s ability to keep her emotions grounded so that she always feels like an ordinary girl first and a “hero” second. In another movie this could feel like a secret identity, but in Catching Fire the lines between Katniss “the girl on fire” and Katniss the girl determined to survive start to blur the more she see’s the futileness of pretending she is only the latter.
The film’s narrative sticks to Katniss for the majority of the running time, but does a good job of updating viewers on the various other enemies and allies she has begun to accumulate. Josh Hutchinson as her fellow tribute and unforgivably noble “nice guy” is great at helping her deal with the mounting burden she’s faced with, and yet he does not lose faith that they will find a way to survive the whirling dervish of traps designed for them in the new jungle of an arena they are dropped into.
The rest of their team includes the always-welcome Woody Harrelson as the boozy, disgruntled, and frequent scene-stealer Haymitch Abernathy. In a more traditional dystopia he would be spotted behind the scenes, meeting with anonymous figures in bars to manage the growing stardom of his reluctant resistance symbol, probably with an ass-kicking ex-girlfriend backing him up when his penchant for alcohol and one-liners lands him in the midst of a decidedly R-rated dustup. As he exists in Catching Fire, Haymitch is merely a mentor—maybe even a father figure—who balances Katniss’ desire to be a kid with the sobering reminder that in a the world of The Hunger Games, kids are the last one’s excluded from the horrors of death.
Returning as Katniss’ resident soulful muse and stylist is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, whose gold makeup may appear to mark him as just another one of the Capitals happily clueless one percenters, only for it to become clear that his exuberant getup is really a method of blending in while he hides his disgust and horror at a society that thinks nothing of partying while the lower districts team with death squads.
Elizabeth Banks lends an extra female presence as the bubbly-but-slightly-starting-to-curdle hostess Effie Trinket. Where she was previous all too excited to beckon Katniss and Peeta to their crowd-pleasing deaths, growing unease is written over every bit of eyeshadow. If Effie were in Nazi Germany, she would be the female officer who tallies the death toll after seeing the ragged faces of the men and women behind the fences, and finds that she can no longer keep her job and her humanity separate.
On the other side of the proverbial commentators box is TMZ host expy Caesar Flickermen (Stanley Tucci) whose laugh gets louder and creepier every interview, and whose mouth looks seconds away from unhinging like a snake and devouring his guest. He’s flanked by savy new Hunger Games director Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, basically reprising his villainous Mission Impossible 3 role) and Donald Sutherland dripping menace (and a little blood) as the cold and threatening president Coriolanus Snow.
Katniss and Peeta meet new Hunger Games players in the forms of the puckish Finnick Odair (Sam Caflin) who wields a trident with polished finesse and whose handsome frame belies a casual air of nonchalance. With cheekbones that could sink the Bismark, and a smile that could easily conceal traitorous fangs behind it, Caflin is the second show stealer as he keeps Finnick both sly and mysterious, all the while nursing a darkened soul that begs for future revelations about his past.
Mirroring Katniss’ one-woman survival story is former tribute Johanna Mason (Jena Malone, fire in her former hair now simmering in heart), an unrestrained and dark-eyed axe carrier who looks like Aubrey Plaza if she’d been stuck on the Island from Lord of the Flies. Lacking inhibitions about things such as clothes and personal space, she is a new sight for Katniss and keeps her own agenda secret while not disguising her hatred for the Capital.
But the question remains; is the story of Katniss Everdeen of the classic hero driven to rebel, or is it something more? As the architects of the revolution paint slogans and form an angry mob in front of the disbelieving watch of President Snow, it’s hard not to feel that though the story began with the games, it’s the children raised to go to the slaughter that are the true focus. When oppression reigns, resistance forms as a basic tenant of human behavior, and all it takes is Katniss making an indomitable enemy like the Capital bleed to turn that resistance into action.
Taken this way, Katniss’ transformation is not from a wet-behind-the-ears farm boy into a Jedi master, but an ordinary girl, endowed with human strength and frailties, who learns to see herself as more then simply a hero or a heroine of the people. She is not the originator of the revolution, but a conduit of a legacy that has existed since the dawn of time. It has flowed through countless individuals, and will continue to flow wherever there are people whose bodies are beaten down, but whose hearts stay strong.
Catching Fire’s title is enormously apt, as it brings to mind the way a fire spreads from a single flame into a towering inferno that can engulf the entire area, but is also apt for how Katniss’ determination gradually shifts from simply surviving the games, to changing the world that has created them. If The Hunger Games has an overarching theme, it’s how the right person at under the right circumstances can start something much bigger then themselves; but that person may not always be able to know the part they are to play until they let their arrow fly…