Middle movies are the best - this time around, we didn't need to be introduced to the characters or the world. There's no awkward exposition in this movie. A few elegant shots remind us of what's come before. One of the best is when, at the very beginning, Katniss aims to shoot a wild turkey in the woods back in District 12 and at the last moment sees herself shooting Marvel, the tribute she killed in the first games, instead. That one image was such a good reminder, early in the film, that there's no way Katniss (or we) can forget what happened in the previous movie. She and Peeta and all the other victors we meet later in the movie are seriously damaged and changed by what they did in the arena.
Portraying that psychological damage is one of the best, most unique things about Collins' books. Unlike most stories about heroes and heroines who endure incredible physical violence, the Hunger Games trilogy honestly shows how much that violence hurts people, physically and psychologically. When they're back in the arena, the characters also spend more of their time running in terror or lying on the ground, incapacitated by pain, than they do fighting or acting brave. I really appreciated that the movie lets its action heroes and heroines remain human even as they achieve superhuman things.
The actors really stepped up to the task of embodying both human fragility and human strength. I felt I knew what was going through Katniss's head at all times, which is important for an adaptation of a book that was told in the first person. And although there never seems to be enough time in movies for just watching the characters grow, Catching Fire did show a lot of character development. Peeta in particular undergoes a wonderful transformation in this part of the story (which makes part three even more heartbreaking). His strengths come to match Katniss's, although the two don't overlap. As I watched them struggle differently but bravely with the pressures and horrors of the victory tour and the arena, I was totally convinced that, together, they could actually change the society that was oppressing them.
Meanwhile, Gale starts to look worse and worse in comparison, as he consistently ignores everything Katniss is going through and just keeps asking her whether she's in love with him yet. He becomes, in some ways, the same as the spectators who so eagerly lap up Katniss and Peeta's staged romance. Peeta, on the other hand, accepts Katniss's feelings and gets on with the more important stuff, like helping her save her family or comforting her when she has nightmares about the arena. When Gale sees Katniss recoil in shock after her vision of shooting Marvel, by contrast, he has no idea what to do.
All of this points not only to how much better Peeta is than Gale, but also how much better Suzanne Collins is than most authors who focus on their heroines' love lives over everything else. One of these boys understands that Katniss is more than a sex object, and he's obviously the one she should ally herself with if she wants to save the world and wants to have a chance at happiness doing that. Collins also exposes how the society objectifies Katniss. The best way to keep her from starting a rebellion, as Plutarch Heavensbee suggests to President Snow, is to paint her as a classic feminine stereotype, more obsessed with her wedding dress than concerned about politics. That's why Cinna's transformation/destruction of that dress is such a good image. On the one hand, he literally burns up the dress to show that she's more than the barbie doll that the Capitol wants her to be. On the other hand, when she spreads her wings as the Mockingjay, she's still expressing her identity through a dress, a foreshadowing of the fact that she'll become as much a puppet of District 13's rebellion as she was of the Capitol.
This is also why I loved Joanna's undressing-in-the-elevator scene. She recognizes exactly what those fancy clothes mean, and she isn't having any of it. She'd rather go naked than conform to anyone's idea of who she is. It’s also a priceless scene, which the actors play for comedy very successfully. But, as is appropriate for the story, even this comedic moment is overlaid with the themes of the film. The Hunger Games trilogy is a critique of those who thoughtlessly create and consume entertainment, and it forces its own audience to really think about what they’re watching and to decide for themselves whether it’s entertainment or something else.
I loved all the new characters, Joanna included. The casting was right on the nail for everyone, and the movie succeeded in presenting clear, though necessarily brief, portraits of each of them. Haymitch also acquires a lot more depth in this movie simply by being presented alongside his friends, the other victors. One details I did miss from the books was the scene where Katniss watches the video of the games from the year Haymitch won. But I admire the directors for knowing when to cut scenes like that and achieving a coherent and lean movie in the end.
In addition to being well directed and acted, the movie was beautifully designed. The arena looked pretty spectacular, especially in the aerial shots. And once again, the movie fleshed out a more vivid, tangible world than the books presented (thin physical description and world-building is one of the main flaws of the books, in my opinion). I look forward to seeing how the filmmakers show us District 13. Only a year to wait, but the brilliant series of short scenes and spare shots at the end of the movie definitely whetted my appetite and are making that year seem very long indeed.