When you have such a strong fan base for material from such a successful novel franchise, there is even more pressure to get the sequel right. Thankfully, director Francis Lawrence was up to the challenge. There were a few things that I think Catching Fire HAD to do: 1) we had to feel the menace that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) represented and the threat Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) felt as well; 2) we had to know there was a real growing love triangle between Katniss, Peeta (a much more mature Josh Hutcherson), and Gale (Liam Hemsworth); 3) we had to care about the other tributes in the 75th Hunger Games, at least a little; and 4) we had to see WHY Katniss represented a tipping point in the rebellion against the capital. After these points were met with satisfaction and clarity, the rest could be whatever the director and screenwriters thought were important to the plot. I think they succeeded admirably.
The film represents the heighten stakes of not only the franchise, but the characters and plot within it. Snow showing up at Katniss’ house, mysteriously coughing blood, and plotting against Katniss with game-maker Plutach Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) definitely make the ramifications of Katniss’ future actions particularly clear. Gale upped his game in showing his true feelings for Katniss – as did Peeta – while Katniss showed us why both guys are worthy of her love. The tributes were well documented from Nuts (Amanda Plummer) and Volts (a brilliant Jeffrey Wright balancing between kind and menacing) to Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Mags (Lynn Cohen) and the best addition Joanna. Jena Malone’s opening scene as Joanna has her stripping in an elevator in front of Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) with such ballsy attitude you actually forget she’s the little girl from Stepmom.
All of this helps to play into the most important aspect of Catching Fire, the consistent threat of an uprising. The book was in the advantageous place of being able to describe the snippets Katniss witnesses in a lot of detail. The movie couldn’t do that in the same way, but managed to succeed in convincing us that the rebellion was happening, from the armored cars that Katniss and Peeta ride in and peek out of, to the screens that Snow watches. The way the film ends, it’s even easier to see the culmination of all of that effort at rebellion truly surrounding Katniss (but in case you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t describe the ending).
My only criticism of the film is a small, but annoying, one. How can Plutarch Heavensbee live in the Capitol District of Panem, and be accepted as the new Game Maker, yet look like he just stepped out of Brooklyn? He had no hair style, no color in his wardrobe, no makeup. Please. I get that he was meant to represent something that isn’t revealed until later, but he would not have fit in at all, let alone be invited to these parties without primping at least a little. He seemed quite out of place. Even Haymitch has a styled jacket and quite deliberately unkempt look.
Thankfully, most of the handi-cam photography from the first installment was removed for Catching Fire. A part of the book I found extremely important was the arena. The film ensures that both the arena and the fight sequences are easy to understand and follow. However, the events in the arena never overshadow the fact that it was more about the tributes fighting Snow than each other. Catching Fire also kept up (or stepped up) the costume designs throughout, particularly Effie (Elizabeth Banks) in her butterfly costume crying at having to call Katniss’ name for a second time at the Quarter Quell.
A definite step up from a very good initial offering, I thought Catching Fire was excellent.