It isn’t often that a sequel outdoes it’s predecessor in nearly every way, but The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, does just that. Granted, sequels have the benefit of not having to establish the world and characters, but that’s what makes Catching Fire so unique. While the world is setup, as are the core set of characters, the story still leaves so much to be explored, as well as introduce wonderful new characters.
Suzanne Collins’ novel increases the size and scope of Panem as well as the dramatic events bubbling under the surface in the districts. Director Francis Lawrence steps in for Catching Fire (and the two sequels, Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2), and does an extraordinary job. The movie never feels rushed, or too slow, and takes its time to build the tension. Panem now feels huge, and more of the Capitol is explored. Coming off the success of the first film, you can clearly see that the nearly doubled budget ($140 million) was used to it’s full extent (sets, costumes, visual effects, special effects).
Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic as Katniss (no surprise there) and there are a few key scenes where Lawrence allows her eyes to speak volumes of emotions. The supporting cast in this film gets a major step up as well thanks to the help of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffery Wright and expanded roles for Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland. Donald Sutherland in particular stands out as President Snow. Snow fumes hate and anger every time he is on screen, but Sutherland buries it and portrays it just through intense stares and devious smiles. While Hoffman’s role as Plutarch Heavensbee isn’t as fleshed out as much as it should have been, it’s established that he’s smart, cunning and strategic. Snow trusts him and that’s all the power he needs.
Visually, Catching Fire is a big improvement over The Hunger Games. Threats in the arena looks significantly more real than in the original (I’m thinking of the bad CGI mutts). The CGI is much improved and the sets and visual effects are just as impressive. The new arena is beautiful (filmed on Oahu) and the threats are very real. The practical sets for the arena, as well as natural landscape give the film a real sense of danger and immerse the audience into a world that feels authentic.
As mentioned previously, the pacing is nearly perfect. Slowly building the shrouded tension in the outlining districts, amping-up the consequences for each character and demonstrating that under Snow’s hate, no one is safe. By the time the film reaches the climax, the audience is gripped to their seats and reacting to each dramatic event in real time with the characters. Simply put, Catching Fire is high on the list of my favorite films for the year.
*Note for parents: It’s as violent as expected and definitely not recommended for very young kids (of which there were quite a few in my audience), but the violence mostly takes place off screen or is perceived.