I hate sequels. Now, before you start including me in your own elaborate Hunger Game scenario and imagine my ultimate demise let me clarify- I hate good sequels. What an odd complaint to make? Well, you’re right, but the thing is that every now and again a movie comes along and you might enjoy it, but have some lingering doubts about just how much you like it- and then the sequel shows up. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is one of those rare sequels that is so good that it makes me a little embarrassed about how much I loved the first film.
If I had hated THE HUNGER GAMES, then not a one of those two opening statements would matter. The fact of the matter is that I really like Gary Ross’ film, but its flaws became all the more evident with Francis Lawrence’s CATCHING FIRE. I had my doubts after all, Lawrence did ruin a book that I love (I AM LEGEND) with some horribly awkward CGI that couldn’t be saved by Will Smith’s fantastic performance. So I had a thought in the back of my mind that his adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games book could cause the franchise to fizzle out. Luckily, that’s not the case as Lawrence’s film shattered every expectation I had, minus one or two slight problems.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series I’m not sure why you’d be reading this, but I’ll be vague about the plot either way. The film follows the continued struggle of Katniss Everdeen against the cruel hand of the Capitol following her victory in the previous year’s Hunger Games.
From the get go Francis Lawrence’s vision of Panem feels so much more realized than in the previous film. The characters feel more fleshed out and the actors playing them all seem more comfortable with their roles. Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic in the first and everyone else wasn’t bad necessarily, but their work in CATCHING FIRE is far better. Even some of the new faces are extremely welcome which includes Finnick as played by Sam Claflin, who in spite of not being aware of anything else he’s done almost perfectly captured Finnick’s cocky but charming persona.
The actors are indeed important, but when comparing it to the first film the atmosphere and tempo of the film are also vital to its success. With all the information that has to be crammed into CATCHING FIRE Francis Lawrence is able to lay out every last detail either visually or through the storytelling and pose a pretty incredible world with strong science fiction footing without making it seem overly cheesy.
From there the thematic elements are all nearly pitch perfect. Leading up to the games there is a tremendous portrayal of the fakeness of celebrities and their role in helping people forget their current situations. More than that though the emotions run higher, the action is more exciting and the story is deeper. Lawrence however is not simply stepping on Ross’ head to get to the top, instead he is just filling in the blanks and building on what Ross started in the first film. Where the first film does a more than adequate job at setting this world up this film brings it to the next level. CATCHING FIRE utilizes some of the values from the first film, but injects them with steroids to transition into a far more expansive world to accommodate the more action heavy aspects of the last book.
The next redeeming factor is that when the action starts, we can actually see what’s going on. Most remember Ross’ incredibly dizzying shaky cam from the first film whenever action was taking place- well that’s all gone here and replaced with clean steady shot sequences. However, there are at least two or three scenes that take place at night that are almost too dark to see everything happening which can be disorienting.
To add on to the gorgeous cinematography, the special effects are just one more aspect that trumps the original film. One of my biggest gripes with the first film was the horrible CGI in the final scenes and the weird dog creatures which were rendered horribly and the scene took place at night which still didn’t manage to hide the crappy effects. Lawrence is responsible for some pretty terrible CGI in previous movies like Constantine, but more so the “vampires” from I AM LEGEND- not the case in CATCHING FIRE. The effects in the arena are spectacular and the setting is absolutely beautiful to look at, but that also goes for the expanded looks we get at Panem throughout too.
To say that THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is better than the first is not giving it enough credit. Aside from some darkly lit action sequences the film is perfectly paced, exciting, emotional and beautiful. Francis Lawrence has upped his game substantially for this blockbuster franchise and I now have nothing but hope for his involvement in the final two movies. The second CATCHING FIRE ends I was immediately pumped to see the next installment which is a testament to the quality because had it been a middling experience I’d have been okay with a bit of a wait until the next film. Jennifer Lawrence shines once again and helps to make THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE one of this years best films that should not be missed.