Sequels that better their predecessors are, in general, few and far between, but when that sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, follows a sub-par predecessor, The Hunger Games, it’s an easy conclusion to make, primarily due to the replacement of Gary Ross, the director of The Hunger Games, a filmmaker temperamentally and experientially unsuited for a science-fiction/adventure film filled with major and minor set pieces, with Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, Constantine), a director whose relatively brief (and minor) filmography includes the ambitious, if flawed, adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal science-fiction/horror novel, I Am Legend, six years ago. Lawrence proved himself adept at directing small, intimate, character-building scenes and larger, epic-scaled set pieces – skills necessary to bring the second book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy to cinematic life.
From the early shot of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), crouching in wait for her prey to slip into view, it’s more than evident that Lionsgate made a good call when they tapped Francis Lawrence to take over the series. Framing the shot simply and unobtrusively, with Katniss in the center of the screen, may seem like Directing 101 (it is), but it’s a major improvement over the constant shaky/spastic cam that ruined The Hunger Games as a visual experience. The classically influenced composition of the opening shot hints at Katniss’ self-imposed isolation – a hint borne out moments later when Katniss reacts in shock and despair after hallucinating one of the fallen tributes lost in the previous film’s Hunger Games. The games have left Katniss with PTSD, unsurprising given what she had to do to survive: Kill other tributes, teens and preteens, dead as a result of a Battle Royale-inspired, televised death match created to appease the autocratic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol’s ruling elite, as well as distract the districts’ impoverished, oppressed masses, not to mention serve as a yearly warning of the Capitol’s willingness to use violence to suppress any attempt at rebellion.
Whatever solace Katniss takes from the morning hunt proves short-lived. Along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the other District 12 survivor, she’s been forced to participate in a so-called “Victory Tour” of the other districts. Katniss’ survived the previous Hunger Games by pretending to be in love with Peeta, a decision that endeared her to the Capitol’s ruling elite – if not Snow – and the masses from the other districts that watched the games. That faux-relationship, however, must remain intact. Katniss and Peeta have to continue their play-acting – a not so unsubtle dig at the faux-couples that often take center stage in our celebrity-obsessed culture – much to the displeasure of Katniss’ childhood friend, Gale Hawthorne (a bland, blank Liam Hemsworth). Circumventing the rules of the Hunger Games – specifically the one survivor rule – has turned Katniss into a reluctant revolutionary, a symbol of rebellion and thus an existential danger to Snow and the ruling elite.
To diminish Katniss’ appeal as a revolutionary symbol, Snow tries to turn Katniss into a willing member, however superficially, of the elite, but her repeated inability to remain on script and a seemingly unstoppable surge of anti-Capitol sentiment in the districts convinces Snow that only Katniss’ elimination will quell the embers of revolution. Snow turns to the new Head Game-Maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to devise a new Hunger Games, not coincidentally the 75th Hunger Games and thus a “Quarter-Quell,” giving Heavensbee the supposedly sanctioned opportunity to give the upcoming games a twist: A new Hunger Games featuring male and female winners, two from each district, 24 altogether, taken from past winners – an All-Star Hunger Games with life-or-death stakes. The 75th Hunger Games will serve the dual purpose of eliminating Katniss and the other tributes, including Peeta, literally (with, again, only one possible survivor) and figuratively (as symbols of anti-authoritarian rebellion).
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes the better part of 90 minutes (out of a 146-minute running time) to get Katniss, Peeta, and the other tributes to the new arena, a domed jungle filled with natural and unnatural dangers. It’s to the credit of Lawrence and the two Oscar-winning screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (writing as Michael deBruyn), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire rarely stumbles or drags. Even during the lengthy Victory Tour, each scene either reveals character (Katniss’ survival guilt, her innately anti-authoritarian nature) or furthers the intertwined storylines (dissent and rebellion in the districts, growing unease in the Capitol). Those scenes also go a significant way towards rehabilitating Peeta as a character. In The Hunger Games, Peeta came off as weak-willed, even pathetic, wholly incapable of fending for himself and thus a liability for Katniss. Here, he’s more self-assured and willing to take risks even if Katniss remains his superior in the arena. Hutcherson also gives a more expressive, more naturalistic performance than he did the first time around, the likely result of Francis Lawrence taking over as director, his maturation as an actor, or both.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire subtracts the children-killing-children element that made The Hunger Games so disturbing, partly because of the subject matter, but mostly because it implicated the audience in taking pleasure at the spectacle of children killing children – albeit in a bloodless, PG-13 manner. Most of the new tributes barely get any screen time, making their inevitable deaths even less meaningful. Katniss and Peeta get potential allies in several other tributes, including Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), but with the exception of Finnick, a tribute with a constantly shifting agenda, they’re barely sketched in. Given the nearly 2 and ½ hour running time, though, that’s probably still the best, especially once Francis Lawrence puts his action filmmaking skills into practice, throwing one danger or threat at Katniss and the others at precise intervals, giving them and by extension, the audience, periodic breaks for rest and info-dumping before the next danger or threat makes an appearance. It also helps that the 75th Hunger Games occurs over a few days, not weeks like the previous one did.
Thematically, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire revisits similar, if not identical, ground covered by the first film: To wit, a class struggle illustrated by extreme poverty and destitution in the districts and excess and over-consumption of the callous, over-indulgent elite in the Capitol. At the end of the Victory Tour, Peeta reacts in revulsion when he’s offered an emetic so he can regurgitate his meal and continue eating (an obvious nod to Roman-era vomitoriums). The bread-and-circuses theme (i.e., televised death matches to pacify the masses) also carries over into the sequel, but it’s de-emphasized this time around, focusing primarily on events as they unfold inside the arena and in Snow’s mansion than the individual or collective districts. Both provide context and subtext, though there’s little in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that can be described as particularly profound or even insightful social critique or commentary wise, but that’s probably true of most, if not all, dystopian fiction, especially dystopian fiction of the YA kind.
As the middle book in a trilogy, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire unsurprisingly left the fate of the central characters and Panem undecided. The big-screen adaptation ends on a similar, cliffhanger note (cf., Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back). Not surprisingly, moviegoers will leave their local multiplexes feeling partially or wholly unsatisfied (probably more of the latter than the former). Then again, the ending suggests that the “Catching Fire” subtitle should be taken literally. And with Jennifer Lawrence once again elevating practically every scene with a level of emotional commitment rare for franchise leads – matched, of course, by her depth, range, and natural expressiveness– and it’s hard not conclude that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t just better than its predecessor (it is), but one of the better franchise sequels in recent memory (only Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban should be mentioned in the same conversation).