A new director, some well-placed cast additions, a brand-new cinematographer and a strong central performance from Jennifer Lawrence make The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a vast improvement over the franchise’s first chapter.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and cinematographer Jo Willems (Limitless) get rid of most of the goofy, baroque sheen that made The Hunger Games so annoying. They also have a much better technique for filming action scenes—and as a result, they have made a film that feels quite brutal at times. A film about kids being forced to kill each other should be brutal, and not feel as if it is pulling punches, as the first movie did.
Watching this new film, I was reminded of how the Harry Potter series switched into high gear with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Alfonso Cuarón washed out the color palette and added a new element of darkness to the proceedings. In many ways, Francis Lawrence steals Cuarón’s game—and that’s to the viewer’s benefit. This is an efficient, well-oiled movie machine now.
The sequel picks up soon after the events of the first film, with Katniss and Peeta (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson) enjoying a relatively calm, reluctant celebrity life after their rule-bending victory in The Hunger Games. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is not happy with the rising popularity of Katniss, and he lets her know that, in person. Soon thereafter, Katniss and Peeta find themselves fighting for their lives again in a rarely invoked tradition of former Hunger Games victors competing against each other.
Gone is that quick-cut, shaky-cam, messed-up way of filming action to mask the violence in what is essentially supposed to be a violent movie. (The movies thus far have been rated PG-13; an R rating would keep many young fans away.) The action is not only easy to follow, but quite exciting. A sequence in which Katniss and friends flee some sort of creeping gas cloud stands as one of the better action scenes this year.
Lawrence takes Katniss to a new, far-more-interesting level this time out. In front of Willems’ lens, she’s looking a little more worn and embittered; I found her believable as a war-torn survivor. She also seems a little more engaged in this movie, as if the new director simply pulled a better performance out of her. Her performance in the first film was fine, but the environment she was put in felt staged. Catching Fire feels more organic.
Sutherland’s Snow gets a chance to be more involved and far more sinister; he is establishing himself as a true villain. Philip Seymour Hoffman climbs onboard as the shady new game master; he’s a far more menacing presence than Wes Bentley and his lame facial hair.
Hoffman is good, but Sam Claflin wins my pick for best new addition to the cast as the preening Finnick Odair. He’s a great, mysterious Hunger Games competitor whose motivations are complicated. He also provides some decent comic relief. Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer also join the cast as competitors, making the group of people in the game far, far more interesting than those in the first film.
In the great tradition of mega-franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire leaves you with a big cliffhanger. Don’t worry; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (two films will cover one book) is merely a year away. Even better news: Francis Lawrence will direct the two Mockingjay films, so they have a solid chance of being good.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now playing at theaters across the valley.