It's a difficult task crafting a successful middle chapter of an established story. On one hand, the tedious work of establishing the world in which the tale is set has been done; but on the other, without the benefit of a proper conclusion, you run the risk of delivering a less-than-satisfying experience for the audience. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" skillfully avoids the dreaded sophomore slump thanks to a smart script and first-rate direction from new franchise helmer Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend").
The first film ended with heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) manipulating the totalitarian Capitol into allowing both her and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to be declared winners of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, when only one of them was meant to survive. "Catching Fire" picks up several months later, as Katniss and Peeta are embarking on a Victor's Tour, traveling to each district to celebrate their victory in the games. In the time since the games, it's become increasingly obvious that the love between Katniss and Peeta that so captivated the public (and led to the bending of the games' rules) was only for show, and that Katniss' true affections lie with her childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Before they set out, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, utterly chilling) pays Katniss a visit, explaining that she had better get with the lovey-dovey eyes or face the consequences. It seems that her defiance has been an inspiration to the impoverished districts, and has inadvertently ignited a movement of open rebellion against the Capitol's rule. Snow needs the couple to serve as a distraction, so the public focuses on them and not the real problems of the world.
Unfortunately for Snow, Katniss has become a symbol of revolution against the Capitol, and her presence only riles up the plebs even more. Hoping to counteract this development, and under the advisement of a new gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow announces that the 75th Hunger Games will be an All-Stars Edition, in which tributes will be selected from the pool of existing victors. Suddenly, Katniss and Peeta find themselves once again thrust into the arena to fight for their lives.
In "Catching Fire," Francis Lawrence, along with writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (adapting Suzanne Collins' novel), have crafted an enormously entertaining blockbuster entertainment that doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience. The source material was a fertile ground of intriguing ideas that it didn't always necessarily exploit to their fullest potential, but Beaufoy and Arndt turn the film into a rather sharp examination of the politics of fear. They expand upon the world of Panem in intriguing ways and focus on the political machinations, or as Heavensbee puts it, "moves and countermoves," that eventually lead to all-out war. The film takes its time letting things develop — it's nearly 90 minutes into the film before we even get to the games, and it's slightly disappointing when we do, as the lead-up is so enthralling. Lawrence keeps things moving, and the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time practically flies by. He has a clearer eye for action than Gary Ross (the first film's director), as well as the luxury of a drastically increased budget, and his staging of the games feels like a definite upgrade.
Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss. She's an actress capable of portraying a gravity beyond her years, and she's a strong anchor for the rest of the film. I can't imagine anyone better portraying the arc Katniss goes through; from the reluctant symbol of the uprising to...well, the film's final shot makes it clear that she's not quite so reluctant anymore.
Sadly, her love interests are less compelling, though they make more of an impression than in the first film. This is, however, likely at least partially by design. It's Katniss' story, and her focus is on the survival of her and her family; as she tells Gale early on, she has little room for anything else in her life. The backburnering of the romance storyline is a rather refreshing contrast to certain other young-adult series.
The rest of the tributes are given much more screentime this time around, and they're filled out with a wonderful collection of character actors like Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Lynn Cohen, and they do a lot with the roles. I had some doubts about the casting of Sam Claflin, since he's not exactly how I pictured Finnick Odair when I read the novels, but he won me over in his very first scene with Lawrence.
By returning to the arena of the Hunger Games, "Catching Fire" can't help retaining a slight hint of sequel-itis, but with the next installment promising to serve up something entirely new, 2014 can't come soon enough.