Sequels are tricky beasts. Expectations are high, the material is - in most cases - not quite as engaging as the introductory film which built up a fictional world, and if any major changes were made the immediate knee-jerk reaction is to view them with distrust. For the second film of The Hunger Games franchise there was a new director on board and the cast of adult supporting players expanded a great deal. Director Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend) was challenged with building on what Gary Ross accomplished in 2012's The Hunger Games while propelling the story into even darker territory with more complex themes. And Lawrence lived up to the challenge, exceeding expectations and delivering a film that is actually (surprisingly) better than its predecessor.
Suzanne Collins' second book, Catching Fire, served to further set up the revolution and to throw the District 12 victors back into the Hunger Games where they would be forced to establish new alliances and become the catalysts for open rebellion among the Districts toward the Capitol. Collins' second novel wasn't mere filler material with just a scattering of crucial narrative points, and the second film of the series is not just a bridge between the birth of the Mockingjay movement and the full-fledged uprising coming in the third book (and third and fourth films). Key characters who will take on important roles in the next two films (Sam Claflin's 'Finnick', Jena Malone's 'Johanna', and Jeffrey Wright's 'Beetee' - all delivering stellar performances in this second film of the series) had to be introduced in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the film slowly establishes the new world order over its first hour before plunging our District 12 heroes into the Capitol's twisted new Hunger Games setup. Making full use of its 146 minute running time, Catching Fire fleshes out Katniss' world, even shifting the focus occasionally off of the strong-minded, intimidating, and at times frustratingly impulsive young woman to supporting players pivotal to the revolution.
The Hunger Games newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman gets a good amount of screen time as Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, a shady figure/puppet-master who has President Snow's ear and who's responsible for the setup of the 75th Hunger Games (also known as the Quarter Quell) which pits a past male and female victor from each District against the other victors. Donald Sutherland makes quite an impact as the ruthless President who threatens Katniss with the death of her loved ones if she can't get the Districts to fall back in line by convincing them of her support for the Capitol and of her undying love for Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss is still torn between Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her best friend and hunting partner who knows her better than anyone, and the baker boy who was her partner in the Hunger Games. In Catching Fire, we see Gale emerge as a potential leader among the rebels and the relationship between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale is fleshed out further which actually gives Hemsworth a chance to act and not just react. Also getting more of an opportunity to show personality is Hutcherson as Peeta. This time around he knows where he stands with his co-victor from Hunger Games and he's developed more of a backbone and is less of an unwilling participant in the social and political maneuverings surrounding the Games.
Elizabeth Banks' Effie is a scene-stealer (as she was in the first film), however this time Effie's not just a plastic Capitol cheerleader and actually displays a real emotional connection to Katniss and Peeta. Her counterpart is Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the alcoholic District 12 victor who's still mentoring Katniss and Peeta - an easy job when it comes to handling Peeta and a full-time chore when it comes to attempting to keep Katniss from further expanding the target she has on her back put there by President Snow. Banks and Harrelson have wonderful chemistry as former antagonists who have edged closer to seeing eye-to-eye on the vicious lunacy of the Hunger Games.
The Bottom Line:
Director Lawrence, working off a script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, is stylistically nothing like Ross and this second Hunger Games movie doesn't rely on shaky cam as Ross leaned so heavily on in the first movie. It's also evident that Lawrence had a bigger budget to work off of and that the studio was less worried about the level of violence seen on screen. Catching Fire has a high body count and the action scenes are cranked up, complete with some pretty wicked CG monkeys, explosions, and hand-to-hand fight sequences.
As The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens, we see the world of Panem has dramatically changed since Katniss and Peeta emerged victorious from the arena. The sparks of rebellion always simmering below the surface have been stoked into a full-fledged flame by the Girl on Fire, and Katniss and Peeta's victory tour finds their visits to many of the Districts met with open acts of hostility toward the Capitol while at the same time Katniss is being accepted and embraced in this changing political landscape as the inspiration for the revolution.
The pacing is a bit of an issue in the film's first hour but it hits its stride as Katniss and Peeta are introduced to the other victors and the Quarter Quell gets underway in earnest. But other than the slow opening, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not only a solid entry in the franchise but stylistically a much better movie than the film that launched the series. Catching Fire will leave audiences anxious to catch up with Katniss, Peeta, and the rest of the surviving players in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 which, unfortunately, doesn't arrive until November 21, 2014.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was directed by Francis Lawrence and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
Theatrical Release: November 22, 2013