When I wrote my review of the first film in “The Hunger Games” series over a year and a half ago, I couldn’t stop gushing about Gary Ross’ gritty, unsparing aesthetic. The shaky camera and rough editing made the movie’s form brilliantly match the dark content of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult novels. But Ross is gone for the second installment, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and his unique stylization went with him.
The absence of artistry is likely to only bother people like me who study film, however. And while I was sad to see it go, “Catching Fire” more than compensates with a tighter focus on storytelling and fidelity to its source. Under the steady direction of Francis Lawrence and the pen of Oscar-winning scribes Michael Arndt (‘Toy Story 3“) and Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours“), this sequel is among the rare class that manages to outdo than its predecessor.
“Catching Fire” manages to pack a remarkable amount of events into its nearly two and a half hour runtime; in fact, I had read the book a few months before seeing the movie and could hardly think of anything excised from the plot. Yet even in spite of how much it bites off, the film never feels its length at all. Lawrence keeps the action unfolding at a steady clip, never hurried enough to make us feel frenzied but never so drawn out that we can get bored. (And unlike the first “Hunger Games,” I was actually excited for the next film when “Catching Fire” ended.)
As it transitions the series towards a very grave conclusion in “Mockingjay,” this film is by nature very much event-driven rather than character-driven. As such, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is not nearly as flashy this time around. We had plenty of chances to observe poignant moments of raw emotionality as she faces unspeakable horrors alone in “The Hunger Games.”
Yet her surroundings in “Catching Fire” dictate that she must be more reactive to other characters rather than drawing her performance organically from within. Still, Lawrence manages to stun with a quietly effective turn that gets the job done by convincing us that Katniss Everdeen is just a regular person like us. (And what does she need to prove, anyways, now that “Silver Linings Playbook” netted her an Oscar at 22?)
“Catching Fire” also gets the males right this time around, better developing Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale and realizing them as more than just adjacent points of a love triangle. Meanwhile, it effectively introduces Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair, a pompous Poseidon with a strong humanity that slowly unveils itself. Add in Philip Seymour Hoffman, creepy as ever in the role of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, and you’ve got an array of compelling characters that could have entertained me for two and a half more hours.
Even in spite of “Catching Fire” subscribing more to the popcorn blockbuster model of filmmaking, I still found myself completely engaged and compelled. Though Lawrence directs the film rather by the book, he commandeers the style to his will and makes it work exceedingly well. B+ /