There are many approaches one can take when creating a sequel. One of the most used is the “bigger is better” theory in which everything that happened in the first installment has to be ramped up in the second. Better action scenes, more dire consequences, etc. — these are all a part of this philosophy. While I wouldn’t say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire adhered to this idea wholeheartedly, it certainly does feel as if this was partly going through the mind of both the author of the books, Suzanne Collins, and the filmmakers creating this adaptation.
In a lot of ways, Catching Fire is similar to its predecessor. It does eventually have the “Hunger Games” of the movie’s title. The Games involve a couple of the same characters. The supporting cast is all the same. The goal, both in and outside of the Games, is to survive. But Catching Fire does take it all a step further. The drama is stronger, the themes are heavier and more thoughtfully addressed, and the action, once it starts, does feel bigger and better. The filmmakers here have one-upped the first film. Its problems have been fixed and few, if any, issues have popped up in their place.
The film once again stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the first film. She, along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), was selected in the first film to compete in the annual Hunger Games, which places two children from each of the 12 Districts this universe has been separated into. There is usually only one winner, but she and Peeta concocted a way for both of them to survive. Now, their tale of survival and defiance has started a mini uprising in the Districts, who are kept oppressed by the Capitol and its President, Snow (Donald Sutherland).
The aim of the Games is to scare all of the Districts, hoping to keep them in that state lest a revolt occur like the one that happened years earlier. In Catching Fire, it’s 75 years since that revolution was quelled, and that means new rules for The Hunger Games. This year, former winners will be put back into the Games. Behind the scenes, it’s made clear that this is to ensure Katniss and Peeta both die.
It takes the film a long time to re-establish its universe, the participants, and hammer home some of its themes, like its constant dialogue between hope and fear. It’s in the first hour and a half — I’d wager; I was too engrossed to look at a watch — that all of this drama and building up occurs. There’s no action. We see how all the killing affected the two survivors. Katniss has some sort of PTSD. It’s kind of heartbreaking to watch both her and Peeta then be forced to compete again just to survive.
Eventually, we do get to The Hunger Games. Instead of a rather dull forest, we’re given a dome filled with a lush rainforest, a ton of hazards, and a beach. And, unlike the first film, the action — and the whole film, but it became particularly problematic during the action — isn’t filmed with a continually and distractingly handheld camera. No shaky-cam, in other words. The cinematography is clearer and doesn’t hide the action.
We’re given more interesting secondary characters, too, at least once we’re in the games. The old favorites from the last film return for outsider roles — mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), effervescent Effie (Elizabeth Banks), costume designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Hunger Games host Caeser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — but inside the Games come new characters. Katniss and Peeta even team up with them. Listing them might be pointless, but they have unique, easily distinguishable personalities, and you’ll be able to remember them more than anyone not named “Rue” from the first film’s secondary Games cast.
The casting, like in The Hunger Games, is wonderful. Jennifer Lawrence continues to shine as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson shows a soft side as Peeta, and the other actors I’ve mentioned are all veterans and do a great job with their roles. Newcomers to the series include: Philip Seymour Hoffman (no, really) as the new gamemaker; Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as two nerdy contestants; Sam Claflin as Finnick, one of Katniss and Peeta’s allies; Lynn Cohen as an old woman who volunteers in place of Finnick’s lover; and Jenna Malone as an angry contestant who wields an ax and might just be crazy.
If Catching Fire has a problem it’s one that originates from its source material and couldn’t be rectified by the film, regardless of quality. It feels like a middle chapter, like it’s biding time until the actual revolution from the next book. It lays the groundwork wonderfully and is entertaining in its own right, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s inconclusive and that all of the really fun stuff is still to come.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a refined version of its predecessor. It’s slightly stronger dramatically, touches slightly heavier on its main themes, has a bit better action, is far better shot, and is as wonderfully acted as ever. It’s a step up and a better movie, even though it can’t overcome the inherent problem of being the “middle film” — a time-killer.