When The Hunger Games was released in 2012, it followed the success of the novels and finished at #3 for the top grossing films of the year. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire builds off the successful elements of the first film (as well as dropping some of the elements that didn’t work). While much of the franchise’s story is derivative (Battle Royale being the most obvious), Catching Fire’s execution is nearly flawless; with inspired performances, solid direction, and impressive special effects.
The most obvious difference between it’s predecessor is how much Catching Fire benefits from a bigger budget ($130-140 million vs The Hunger Games $78 million), allowing for more creative and convincing special effects. The arena in particular is fantastically realized, with it’s jungle setting, clock-designed lagoon, poison laced fog, and attacking horde of mandrills all realistically done, helping build suspense in the third act of the film. Catching Fire also benefits from the lack of shaky camera shots which were overused in the action scenes of the first film and totally unnecessary in the more quieter moments as well. Instead, Catching Fire allows much of the action to play out, abandoning the frenetic cutting that has plagued many modern blockbusters.
However it is the acting that propels Catching Fire from just another YA novel adaptation to a very accomplished film. Jennifer Lawrence once again shows that she’s one of the best actresses working today. The role not only demands physicality but also emotional depth which Lawrence expertly brings. Josh Hutcherson performance as Peeta is also great as he struggles with where his relationship stands with Katniss. The supporting cast is excellent as well, with great performances once again from Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland, as well as newcomers Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, and Sam Clafin.
It’s obvious that the success of the first book allowed author Suzanne Collins to explore darker themes in the two sequels- themes which lend Catching Fire to more interesting material. Obviously the idea of ritualistic games where kids must kill each other until one victor remains is already pretty dark, but with Catching Fire explores the darker side of the Capitol. Now that Katniss and Peeta have won their first Hunger Game, they must perpetuate their ‘relationship’ not only to survive, but to ensure that others within the district aren’t harmed. While many of the plot devices border on the verge of masochistic, Collins is able to keep things interesting as she builds towards the final showdown in the third film. Ultimately, while the execution of the film is spot-on, it doesn’t have much to offer once it’s over. Not that it is a forgettable film; it just doesn’t warrant multiple viewings.