The rabid fans have been satiated but that doesn’t mean The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is without its problems. However, it is without question better than the first installment of the blockbuster franchise. Part of the improvement is simply having better source material. The second book moves a little crisper, introduces some of the more interesting characters of the series, and increases the stakes, as all sequels must. Another upgrade is the director switch. This is unexpected since Gary Ross has a much more impressive filmography than Francis Lawrence and he did a good job getting the story off the ground. But Francis has always been a competent stylist saddled with crummy screenplays. Here, he’s just a better fit for this kind of material, no disrespect to Ross. But really the most obvious reason this film is more successful than the first is the budget. That’s rarely something that will factor, but in this case it’s glaringly obvious. The scale, the effects, and the production are all bigger. There’s a sheen that wasn’t there before. Studios don’t just allow any film to climax with 50 minutes of expensive IMAX footage. Financial certainty has its perks.
The story follows the same structure as the first Hunger Games. The first half concerns itself with a lot of table setting and character building before the actual games begin and play out for the second half. The wrinkle in Catching Fire is Katniss having to deal with the fallout from how she survived first time around. It seems she may have inadvertently started a revolution by simply having a feisty demeanor. The other little twist is Katniss being cheated and forced into participating in another round of games alongside other previous “victors”. This rehash is the best idea in the book as well as the movie. It’s a plausible way to put the heroine through further trials. This doesn’t feel like Die Hard’s “same shit to the same guy” scenarios. It also means less bland models straight from central casting. Instead we get Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and a surprisingly charismatic Sam Claflin (A casualty of last year’s awful Snow White and The Huntsman).
But just like film one, the material that didn’t work on the page, doesn’t quite work on screen. The garish costuming of the upper class is a nice idea, but it still feels forced. Other quirks, like sponsors sending magical gifts or engineered birds are borderline silly or only halfheartedly explored. There are a lot of semi-formed ideas. PTSD is brought up, then abandoned. There’s a scene with two characters that are literally introduced and then never heard from again. Why? Maybe a thread that was cut or fan service. Previous book knowledge certainly helps but the film skates along just barely without requiring a well-informed audience. Other times it can seem like juicy stuff is being saved for later. This makes sense with the unnecessary splitting of the final book into two films, but it does hurt this film a little.
There’s more to pick at, but there’s little need. Young Jennifer Lawrence continues to earn her star status. She plays skillful and bewildered so well, it makes for a great reluctant hero. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is filled out by professional scene-stealers like Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s this cast and the appealing gloss that smooth over all the nagging loose ends. It also helps that the best moment of the movie is the powerful final shot. It’s a promise that will have many leaving the theater high on possibility and forgetful of any blemishes. It’s a fun time at the movies, but let’s not get too carried away.