“Catching Fire” accomplishes a remarkable feat: it is a genuinely engaging second installment in a trilogy rather than a slogging sophomore entry of filler content and introductions. An indisputable improvement on the “The Hunger Games”, which was bogged down by exposition and misguided direction, “Catching Fire” transforms a bloated novel into a fast-paced film that feels much shorter than its two-and-a-half-hour running time.
Picking up a few months after “The Hunger Games” leaves off, “Catching Fire” follows Katniss Everdeen as she returns home to District 12, traumatized and seemingly unable to carry on the performance that let her win the Games. Her emotional and mental state is perfectly communicated in the film’s opening sequence: hunting in the woods, she fires an arrow at a turkey but sees it land in the heart of the first boy she killed in her Games. Soon after, visit from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) informs Katniss that unless she convincingly keeps up the act of being in love with fellow Tribute and champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the country will be swept into a war. And she and her family will be held responsible.
Jennifer Lawrence is back in full force as Katniss, delivering a vulnerable and open performance. She has always had a gift for emotional transparency, and her talents are put to good use by director Francis Lawrence (no relation). Although the film still cuts away from her point of view to fill audiences in on the machinations at the Capitol (usually explained in monologue by Sutherland, who may as well be twirling a mustache), there is a stronger focus on Katniss than in the previous installment, making for a more personal journey. Her private moments of pain (her inability to hunt without seeing the lives she took; the fear that she has caused other deaths in neighboring districts) are heartbreaking, and the times she is forced to cope publicly (hearing her sister’s screams echo through the arena) are even more affecting.
The performances of Lawrence’s castmates are equally impressive. Josh Hutcherson is charming as Peeta, who could easily be frustratingly selfless; Elizabeth Banks has injected some much needed humanity into Capitol caretaker Effie Trinket; Donald Sutherland, although forced to ruminate on his nefarious plans endlessly in monologue, is delightful as Panem’s patriarch. A highlight of the film is Jena Malone as Johanna Mason: Mason is angry beyond measure, but Malone is never cartoonish or catty.
Francis Lawrence undoubtedly deserved much of the credit for “Catching Fires”’s quality. He deftly shoots quiet conversations and actions scenes alike, and, in the latter, employs the much-maligned shaky cam of the first film sparingly (and with greater effect). Under his direction, the Capitol and its soldiers are more chilling, making the violence they enact all the more brutal. The hints that we are shown of rebellion and coming war are both inspiring and frightening, which bodes well for upcoming installments, which take on a broader, more political scope.
In addition to having a more in-tune director, the budget of “Catching Fire” is nearly twice that of the original film, and it shows. The Capitol finally feels like a real city instead of a color scheme: the ever present fuschia of the first film is gone, and citizens are now dressed in wide variety of grotesquely overdone couture. But the real beneficiary of the new budget is the arena. The 75th Hunger Games are played in a tropical forest that strikes the perfect balance of designed and natural, and watching it be manipulated is a delight for both book readers and newcomers.
“Catching Fire” is a sequel that follows through on the promises of the original, exploring consequences and expanding on the universe. It’s a thrilling set up to the franchises two-film finale, and I can only hope they keep the momentum going.