Years from now academics will use The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a case study on how good direction can improve a sequel. On practically every level, director Francis Lawrence improves the futuristic dystopia where a fight to death placates the masses. The early scenes are sophisticated and even include moments of meta-humor, whereas the long second half favors raw suspense. Sure, Catching Fire does not have a satisfying conclusion – it’s part of a trilogy, so a lot is unresolved – but at least its intense imagery leaves us wanting more.
The script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt picks up soon after The Hunger Games ended. After her victory in the games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is back at her home in District 12. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is also with her – Katniss saved their lives by pretending to be in love with him – and now he resents her indifference. The “fake” couple tours all twelve districts as part of their victory lap, and beneath the status quo the people of Panem are restless. At District 11, a man is shot in the head after a simple gesture of solidarity. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) try to make sure the victors aren’t made an example by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), but their efforts are too late: for the 75th Hunger Games, Snow announces the only competitors will be previous champions. In other words, Snow forces Katniss and Peeta to kill again.
Although the oppression is not entirely specific, Lawrence and his screenwriters add ample subtext to the early scenes. There are several places where characters think one thing and say another. In an striking moment, Snow and Katniss have a tense conversation and their contempt for each other is delicious. But the most interesting relationship is between Katniss and Peeta: when they pose for the camera, it serves as commentary on all the actual press Lawrence and Hutcheson have done for the film. Then there is Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the third part of the love triangle, but the movie downplays his rivalry with Peeta. What matters here is how individuality intersects with rebellion. There is a lot of defiance against the state in Catching Fire, and all of it is driven by character, not the requirements of the plot.
When the games begin, the action takes significant departures from the first film. The plastic-looking Caesar (Stanley Tucci) is largely absent, and we do not hear much about how Snow and the game-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) intend to manipulate Katniss and the tributes. Instead, the action is entirely from Katniss’ perspective, and this isolating narrative comes with power. Jennifer Lawrence combines cool competence with reserves of emotion: there is a harrowing scene where the game gets particularly cruel, and she strips the performance so there’s nothing but intense terror. The camerawork and editing is strong without drawing too much attention. Lawrence serves the story, and his workmanlike dedication is a welcome departure from The Hunger Games’ Gary Ross, who tried to ape Paul Greengrass and failed.
The other tributes also combine confidence with vulnerability. As Finnick, Sam Claflin reminds me of Michael Biehn in Aliens: at first he seems like a knucklehead, only to rise to the challenge. But Jena Malone has the most fun as Johanna, a fiercely angry young woman who’s open about her hostility toward Panem. Veterans like Jeffrey Wright and Lynn Cohen add credibility to the mix, and Lawrence has the patience to slow down the action so we can see just how these frightened men and women might work together. Yes, the script and Suzanne Collins’ novel reduces each tribute to simple virtues/weaknesses, but the performances overcome the simplicity of the character-building.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ends quickly. Shortly after its sudden climax, forces beyond Katniss’ control manipulate her and she’s literally told what has happened to everyone else. This is storytelling at its most lazy – most films show, they do not tell – but all of it is necessary since it’s the set-up for the big finale (the books are a trilogy, but the final book is split into two movies). Collins, Lawrence, and the screenwriters give up a lot of action by keeping things solely in Katniss’ perspective, but it’s worth it when her face finally transitions from despair to anger.