Published Nov 21, 2013Under the guidance of music video director turned go-to studio hack Francis Lawrence, the second cinematic instalment of Suzanne Collins' beloved dystopian book series eschews the artsy flourishes of Gary Ross' take on the material for a simple but faithful translation of the text. As such, and with a budget nearly twice the size of the first film, the success of Catching Fire is almost wholly contingent upon the strength of the plot and cast. Luckily for moviegoers, with its reiteration of what worked about the first story and revelations of the bigger picture in mind, Catching Fire is the strongest narrative in the series and the cast all bring their A-game.
The film commences with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in impoverished District 12, assuring one point of her love triangle, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), that her romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) during the games was nothing more than sound survival strategy. Little time is left for dwelling on affairs of the heart, though, thanks to the demands of the plot-heavy story. If you're among the small handful of people that haven't read the book, this is where the rebellious politics barely hinted at in the first film take on a central role. As victors and de facto celebrities of this Orwellian future America, Katniss and Peeta are trotted around the country at the behest of the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as a distraction from civil unrest. His plan to use their fake romance to staunch the fires of rebellion — unintentionally stoked by Katniss' game-winning act of defiance — goes awry, and with the aid of the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he devises a new method of dashing the hopes of the people: the Quarter Quell.
Thrusting past victors into a new version of The Hunger Games is a perfect excuse for what's expected of a sequel: a supersized version of everything that superficially made the first film a hit. All that extra production money certainly helps; the special effects are vastly improved this time out, and there's a lot more cracked-out peacock opulence on display from The Capitol. That it would look better and be more exciting was a given, but what fans are especially concerned with is the casting of pivotal new roles. Sam Claflin makes a great Finnick Odair and Jena Malone steals every scene she's in as the fiery wildcard, Johanna Mason. The rest of the new additions are similarly well cast and all of the returning stars are better than ever in their respective roles. With the exception of Lenny Kravitz, that is — he's still the definition of mediocre, cast for persona rather than talent.
For a blockbuster franchise driven by compelling characters and satirical politics, both obvious and easy to absorb for most ages, Francis Lawrence is probably a good choice for director. Lacking personal style, he plainly puts the events on screen and lets the text speak for itself. With material this strong to work from and no latitude to mangle it like he did on I Am Legend and Constantine, Catching Fire is the director's best effort to date, and thanks to its dark cliff-hanger, likely to go down as The Empire Strikes Back for a new generation, despite being oddly underwhelming.