There are two common approaches to the second film in a planned trilogy. The first gives us a warmed up rehash of the previous film, maybe with a few bigger moments, but it's largely filler until the final act. The second builds on the foundation of its predecessor while also overturning some of its established rules, creating new and unexpected twists. Thankfully, Catching Fire — sequel to The Hunger Games — is firmly in the latter camp, a sequel that not only deepens the franchise as a whole, but shows deep and distinct growth in nearly every way.
The focus is still on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the co-winner of the eponymous games along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss' ploy to make both her and Peeta winners, which was essentially a giant middle finger to the oppressive regime that runs the games, has had lasting effects in the dystopian landscape of Panem. It's something that Katniss is made acutely aware of as she and Peeta embark on a victory tour and see signs of rebellion stirring. To shut down the brewing insurgency, and destory the symbol that Katniss has become to the people, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces a new Hunger Games attended entirely by previous winners. Katniss has to face the games once again, with the stakes higher than ever.
If that description sounds vague and confusing…well, I apologize. But most of the enjoyment to be had in Catching Fire is in watching the ripple effect spread through Panem and seeing how people react. As Gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (an adroitly underplayed Phillip Seymour Hoffman) says to President Snow, this is all about “move and countermoves.” Nothing in Panem exists in a vacuum, and seeing how each event builds on the next is part of what keeps the moving exciting and dynamic even in its weaker moments.
Part of the improvement comes with a change of directors from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence. Unlike Ross, Lawrence has epic, big-budget films on his resume (everything from I Am Legend to Lady Gaga's “Bad Romance” video) and knows exactly what to do. There's a richness of color and sureity of frame that wasn't as apparent in the first film, and the compositions seem to be deeper and simpler all at once. There's nothing like the shaky-cam chaos of the first games here. The fights are fluid and well-choreogrpahed, but still possess a kind of savage blood that propels them forward effortlessly.
None of this would matter, however, without a lead actress that compliments Francis Lawrence's hard work. To put it quite simply, Jennifer Lawrence is astounding. She can express with sublime subtlety as well as she can with raw, searing emotion. Lawrence's Katniss is wracked with moral ambiguity, responsibiltiy beyond her capacity, and a healthy dose of PTSD (among other psychological ailments), but she has to remain stoic. Lawrence is adept at showing the tumultuous currents under the placid surface.
Lawrence is so good, in fact, that she often overshadows the rest of her cast, both veteran and newcomer. Neither of the male leads that Katniss has an alleged love triangle with — Josh Hutcherson as Peeta or Liam Hemsworth as Gale — have much chemistry with Lawrence here, so it's just as well that the actual geometry of the love triangle is pushed aside for a good portion of the film (although the fake romance between Katniss and Peeta trotted out for the games' spectators is a major plot point). Donald Sutherland honestly has a much better rapport with Lawrence than either Hutcherson or Hemsworth, and the scenes where he and Katniss have battles of wits are beyond tense. Even Katniss' brief scenes with her slowly defrosting handler Effie (played by Elizabeth Banks) are more memorable than any of the “love” scenes.
Of the new Tributes, the two that stand out are Sam Claflin as cock-of-the-walk-with-a-heart-of-gold Finnick and Jean Malone as the gleefully unrestrained, literally axe-crazy Johanna. And those names. That's an unfortunate hold over from Suzanne Collins' books. The names range from the kind-of familiar to the stripperiffic. Essentially, the more a character's name resembles an American Gladiators contestant, the more likely they are to be a bad guy. When a guy named Cashmere shows up (and his sister Gloss…no, really), you automatically know what to expect.
The setting of Panem also feels slightly underwritten, which is probably a simple case of adaptation decay. But in even at the film's over-long 146 minutes, it feels like big chunks of exposition were left on the cutting room floor. And yes, everybody in the Capitol still dresses like they're auditioning for an all drag-queen Lady Gaga tribute band, and it's no less ridiculous.
Most of the demerits of the film, however, are inherent to the landscape Collins has created, and not a flaw of the filmmakers. Lawrence and Lawrence have delivered not only a superb action film that doubles as a sociopolitical rallying cry, but one of the finest, most dynamic “part two” films in recent memory. “Catching fire” has never been so apt a metaphor.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+