For those unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games novels, 2012's The Hunger Games was a tough sell, cursed with nauseating shaky-cam cinematography, too much sluggish exposition and many similarities to the superior Battle Royale. But with a fresh creative team and a bigger budget, 2013's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a superior sequel, more refined and better realised in practically every aspect. More or less all the flaws of the original flick are eliminated here, and the narrative is far more fascinating and engaging, making this an easier sell for the uninitiated. With the groundwork laid, Catching Fire builds on the original film's foundation, expounding on relationships and taking the story to its next logical step, sparking to life what has the potential to become a truly remarkable series. It's simply a fine motion picture all-round, to the extent that it makes the original movie look worse than it actually is.
Catching Fire picks up where the previous movie left off, finding Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) attempting to return to normality after becoming the first dual victors in Hunger Games history. But the win has serious repercussions, as it's perceived by some as an act of defiance, leading to rumblings of a rebellion developing in the Districts. Under orders from President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss and Peeta are sent on a victory tour, forced to keep up the romantic façade that may or may not be false. With Snow worried that an uprising is imminent, newly appointed game-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) spearheads a plan to bring about Katniss' demise: he organises another Hunger Games involving previous winners. With Katniss and Peeta chosen as tributes for the next competition, they are sent into another intense test of survival, battling against such opponents as the borderline psychotic Johanna (Jena Malone) and the pompous Finnick (Sam Claflin). The games quickly intensify, with Katniss forced to make alliances as Plutarch and Snow use every trick at their disposal in a bid to kill off the young revolutionary.
The first picture was spoiled by a strictly mediocre translation of the source novel, excluding some crucial details while adding too much leaden exposition in other areas. Catching Fire, on the other hand, was written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, both of whom have won Oscars for their efforts on acclaimed motion pictures (Beaufoy wrote Slumdog Millionaire, Arndt wrote Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3). Thus, part deux is more polished in the script department, with a better attention to detail. (Hovercrafts are used to pick up the bodies of the fallen during the games, a fact that the original movie ignored but Catching Fire makes clear.) It helps that the narrative is better-structured as well. There's more going on in Catching Fire than just the games, concentrating on the repercussions of Katniss' dual win with Peeta, and detailing the uprising. It's riveting stuff, and it all comes to a head for a finale that had me on the edge of my seat. It closes on a cliffhanger of sorts, building anticipation for the next movie that I am honestly looking forward to. The narrative goes in unexpected directions, subverting expectations with clever twists and turns (providing you haven't read the books). Moreover, the material gains full traction on-screen; Catching Fire is often gripping viewing.
Since the first movie was such a gamble, the filmmakers clearly did not have the proper money or resources at their disposal to fully realise the project's potential. But Catching Fire was produced for a more generous sum, and it shows, making for a far smoother experience. Gary Ross is not a bad director, but he struggled with the 2012 picture, creating an overlong, messy experience marred by some of the worst cinematography this side of Transformers. With no more shaky-cam, new director Francis Lawrence achieves an aesthetic that the franchise has needed since the beginning, devising a steady routine of smooth wide and medium shots, resulting in action set-pieces that are both coherent and exciting. Lawrence additionally creates a grittier experience, showing that games combatants are dehydrated and exhausted, and introducing new threats (including a poisonous mist) that are truly nail-biting. Admittedly, Catching Fire does lose steam a few times, but the games are more captivating here than before, and the movie goes down surprisingly easily in spite of its gargantuan 140-minute runtime.
Catching Fire is further bolstered by the ensemble cast. It's the supporting players who truly shine here, with new additions adding a great deal of colour to the proceedings. Out of the newcomers, the most notable is Jena Malone, who's introduced while taking her clothes off and goes on to steal every single scene in which she appears. Malone's character of Johanna has the most spunk of all the characters, and the actress ran with it, delivering the most memorable performance in the cast. Also notable is Sam Claflin, who's ostensibly established as the trademark arrogant asshole but is soon bestowed with genuine depth, developing into one of the real heroes of the movie. It's a great surprise, and Claflin sells it like a champ. But perhaps the most significant new addition is Hoffman, a superlative performer who nails the role of Plutarch, providing suitable gravitas. Contributing further flavour are returning actors Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, who host the titular games with enjoyable panache and flamboyance.
The other returning actors are for the most part solid as well, the standout being Woody Harrelson who continues to have a total ball in the role of Haymitch, while Elizabeth Banks remains an energetic chaperone. It's such a large and impressive cast that the main players look somewhat uninteresting in comparison. Jennifer Lawrence is again great as the passionate Katniss, but Hutcherson and Hemsworth make little impact as Peeta and Gale (respectively). In fairness, the roles are very standard-order and flat, but the actors do very little to bring them to life, coming across as proverbial pretty-boys. Rounding out the cast is a frightening Sutherland, and Lenny Kravitz who's eminently appealing as Katniss' fashion designer.
The best compliment which can be awarded to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that it made a convert out of this reviewer. It's not just good but great, displaying cinematic maturity and far more respect for its audience than most of this year's summer blockbusters, and it can be enjoyed by casual movie-goers as much as the established fans. Indeed, even those who aren't interested in the saga as a whole will be enthralled due to the competent filmmaking and top-flight storytelling, achieving the type of greatness that Twilight can only dream of. It's an action-adventure with heart and intelligence, and it's easy to overlook the picture's minor flaws.