After deftly avoiding the big love triangle sub-plot that could have fogged up the first Hunger Games, in the sequel, Catching Fire, they just hit the throttle and dived right into it. It's one of those tropes that always sadly inevitable: Two men have to fall in love with the same girl. They can't leave well enough alone.
Let me explain: Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games introduced us to uber-archer Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of a particularly poor sector of a country called Panem which was apparently formed from the ruins of what used to be the United States. Every year, Panem throws a contest called The Hunger Games, which requires every sector to put up a young man or woman for sacrifice in what is literally a fight to the death. Some of the better-off sectors see the Games as the all-time sporting tradition the Capitol media says they are, but the people - especially in the poorer parts of Panem - aren't fooled, and they see the Games for what they really are: A form of population control. Katniss became a heroic figure to her sector when she offered herself up to take the place of her sister when the sister was chosen to represent her district in the 74th Games.
Katniss unexpectedly won those Games, but there was a little snafu the Capitol wasn't expecting: She and her male counterpart from her district, Peeta, put on a big true love romance show during the Games that won over the hearts and minds of the entire country. Only one person is allowed to walk out of the Games, so the romance show included an almost-suicide when Katniss and Peeta decided they were going to off themselves together, at the same time. The Capitol, knowing they were screwed if the lovebirds went through with it, quickly declared them co-winners. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and the Romeo and Juliet gesture became symbolic of defiance in the face of the Capitol.
This is where Catching Fire picks up. Katniss and Peeta are now the evermore district winners, and they're making the rounds. Katniss's hunting buddy, Gale, saw the show she put on with Peeta, and his apparently secret love for Katniss is now not much of a secret anymore. Unfortunately, Gale's jealousy is almost - ALMOST - enough to ruin the first half of Catching Fire because it serves as nothing but a distraction to the main plot, which is also a whole hell of a lot more interesting than the goofy teenagers. Gale's feelings really came out of nowhere, and everything Peeta said and did in The Hunger Games is completely trivialized thanks to the inability of some idiot to keep a story about lovesick teenagers out of the plot. Betcha this sudden bullshit storm adds a meaningless plot contrivance which destroys the upcoming Mockingjay when it comes out later this year. Betcha.
Gale wasn't even important to the story, in either The Hunger Games or Catching Fire. He was buddy-buddy with Katniss in the first Hunger Games, at least for the scenes he was in. Now he's in Catching Fire purely as a whiner who doesn't accept Katniss and Peeta's romance strategy, which means he's now there to add an unfortunate schoolgirl dimension to Katniss. In The Hunger Games, it's set up that Katniss isn't in a good living situation, and she was forced to act mature beyond her years. While it's nice that we finally have something of a definitive angle on Peeta, the cost of getting him there was a bit too high, and Katniss, through half the movie, is reduced to being a high school girl who's worried too much about what her crush is going to think of her, no matter how her very-potentially-deadly situation dictates her actions.
So anyway, Katniss and Peeta start out making the rounds in Panem. Katniss is called into the President's office because the Prez knows where her and Peeta's little act of defiance means for his dictatorship, and he tells her to be a good little girl and keep to the script.... Or else. It doesn't make much difference, though, because his guys are always there to beat the living shit out of the crowd anyway. She's still a symbol, though, and so with the 75th anniversary of The Hunger Games coming up this year, he gets an idea: Pit past winners of The Hunger Games against each other, see if he can erase Katniss the Symbol that way. The rules stated that Hunger Games victors would never have to compete again, so most of the past victors are none too pleased with this. In the pregame ceremonies, in fact, most of them put up some form of protest. Peeta and Katniss decide on the tagalong married couple routine, and Peeta, ever the reliable image strategist, even tells everyone there's a kid on the way in an effort to get the Games called. The move clealy puts a few doubts in the heads of the Capitol onlookers, but the show must go on.
Catching Fire, like The Hunger Games, is basically split into two acts: The buildup and the Games themselves. The buildup in Catching Fire is a lot more nuanced than it was in The Hunger Games, and played out like Katniss knows exactly what she means to the people now. The impression is actually set up pretty early, while her and Peeta are on tour, and the thugs in The Capitol aren't smelling the fear in the districts like in years past. There's a very clear whiff of defiance in the air now, and instead of hunkering down, the people are raising their arms in salute to the two champions. This of course doesn't meet with the Capitol guards' approval, and they take it as a cue to walk in and beat them down, but then again, they were probably planning to do that anyway.
The new tributes don't seem up to the idea of doing the Capitol any favors either. They seem almost soft on each other, and more pissed off at the Captiol than dedicated to the job of eradicating each other. By many accounts, they all get along just fine, and that makes it all the more disturbing when they know they're going to be thrown into a large arena for a no-holds-barred fight to the finish.
It's the second half of Catching Fire which provides the real payoff. In the arena, Catching Fire puts all of its background right back into the background, and the rest of the movie is a straight up thriller. The dangers feel more in-your-face and closer, like poison mist and baboons. While the world the Games are taking place in feels a little bit weird, it's still perfectly in line with The Hunger Games, which also felt a little offbeat due to the arena's odd rules. Even the slow moments occur with an adrenaline-fueled intensity because Katniss finds herself teamed up with other competitors she didn't expect, and there seems to be mutual and very real like between them.
The payoff of Catching Fire is more explosive and satisfying than in The Hunger Games, and it sets the stage perfectly for Mockingjay, when it's released. In the meantime, movies which end with cliffhangers are still going to be on my list of things I want to go extinct.
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