The Hunger Games is a good enough movie. The world building in early portion is well done and engaging, but by the time get to the actual games of the title, things fall apart. At that point you have a lone girl running around the woods, trying not to die, not talking to anyone, that’s only so interesting. Suzanne Collins’ novel gets away with this, the first-person point-of-view makes you privy to the innermost thoughts of heroine Katniss Everdeen, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence. In the film she spends a fair amount of time gazing into the distance. If you’ve read the book, you know she’s thinking about Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) or her sister Prim (Willow Shields), but if not, you have no idea.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, based on the second book in Collin’ trilogy, follows the same pattern, but digs much deeper, and the result is a much stronger movie. You pick up the story in the aftermath of the first film. Something eerily akin to post-traumatic stress disorder has set in, and Katniss is jumpy, haunted by nightmares, and distant from everyone she cares about, especially Peeta, who she can barely look at. Their Victory Tour of the twelve districts of the dystopian nation of Panem reveals the embers of rebellion, which are being dealt with violently by the Capital forces of President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
What Katniss thought was a ploy to stay alive—that stunt with the poison berries in the first film—has been viewed by the oppressed masses as an act of defiance, and the young woman has become a symbol of resistance, like it or not. You can imagine that the powers that be are none too pleased by this, and after she fails to quell the resentment on the tour—even when trying to toe the party line, rebellion is so ingrained in her that she manages to incite upheaval—a convoluted series of events force her back into the Hunger Games arena. In a lot of adaptations, the filmmakers rush the events trying to fit in every detail, but here the pace is even and never feels overly compressed.
All of the heavy lifting on the front end is fantastic. The scope was rather limited in the first film, but Catching Fire broadens the spectrum. Visiting more of the districts, even briefly, gives you a better overall feel for the state of the world. Again, the out of control fashion of the Capital is extreme and over the top—we’re talking about a place where bulimia is in fashion just so you can keep eating tasty delicacies—but even within this cesspool of decadence, there is a subtle undercurrent of dissatisfaction. The fact that Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta’s handler and the ultimate social climbing party girl, is moved by their plight and the hypocrisy and in justice of it all is all you need to know. Both sides wage wars of propaganda, attempting to manipulate public opinion and turn it to their favor, subverting the system from within.
Watching this, you wonder whether or not all of this work, all of this momentum will, yet again, be for naught. It’s fun and interesting, but what will happen once the Games actually begin? When Katniss and Peeta face off against opponents who are all previous victors themselves, this is definitely less compelling than the earlier acts, but doesn’t completely stall like the predecessor.
Instead of being alone, the two have a collection of allies. Their crew includes Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), who is just the right level of smarmy—though not so much that you can’t overcome your initial distaste when he turns out to be a decent guy—and Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone), who presents a rough, bitter exterior to the world to hide deep wounds. All of the previous winners have been irreparably damaged, not only by their time in the arena, but by what has followed, by the realization that their lives truly belong to the Capital. As Haymich (Woody Harrelson) tells his charges, you never get off this train.
Watching multiple people interact is definitely more interesting than observing kids blunder around the woods on their own. As the characters scheme, keep secrets, and form alliances, they continue to develop layers and nuances, at the same time they try to figure out the keys to the arena—hint, there are angry monkeys, poison fog, and psychological warfare for days. The Hunger Games are still the least interesting aspect of Catching Fire, but they are brief in comparison, and there’s enough action to propel you through without much fuss.
The most intriguing parts of the film are pieces you only catch a glimpse of here and there. Katniss, and you by extension, spot clips of fighting in the streets on TV, and director Francis Lawrence, who thankfully eschews the shakiness of the first film for a more traditional approach, doesn’t shy away from brutality, despite the PG-13 rating. Spandex-clad Peacekeepers execute a man on the steps of city hall in District 11 in a moment that delivers a legitimate jolt, Gale is subjected to a public flogging, and, of course, the action revolves around people killing each other for sport.
Like the characters, you want to see more of the uprising, to witness it for yourself instead of learning about it obliquely. This is a lot like how Peeta feels about Katniss. Though he’s well aware that they can never have the relationship he wants, they are linked for as long as they remain alive. Lawrence and Hutcherson have a nice chemistry with one another, never more apparent than when Peeta attempts to maneuver around the barriers Katniss has erected around herself, and catch a fleeting glance at the person underneath.
Catching Fire is the middle chapter in the franchise—even though the last book, Mockingjay, will be split into two movies—and this is definitely the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy. After a series of down notes, it ends on stone cold bummer, the only way it can, where everything just sucks.
At its best, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is seditious, exciting dystopian sci-fi, and even the low points are pretty high. This is a rare sequel that tops the original in every conceivable way. Not perfect, it is still a damn lot of fun, and gives you something to chew on for later.