Catching Fire is superior to its predecessor and might also be better than its source material. At the very least, it equals the novel.
Unlike the original movie, this one is haunting. It doesn’t make the Hunger Games themselves horrific, per se, but it does draw attention to Panem’s inequities and injustice. In so doing, it more faithfully investigates the novels’ themes, which gives it allegorical weight the first movie lacked.
The film is also true to the book’s characters. Writers Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy and Director Francis Lawrence develop Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) well and make us feel her fear and disgust at every turn.
They also skillfully characterize important side players Johanna Mason (scene stealer Jena Malone), Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
The only character on whom Arndt, Beaufoy and Lawrence stumble is an important one: Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). While they capture Peeta’s devotion and loyalty to Katniss, they only hint at his emotional response to the Capital’s manipulation and underhanded tactics. Peeta is the most important character to Katniss, which means he should be the script’s second most significant. Instead, he often fades into the background.
It is a minor flaw, however, because it doesn’t limit the film’s effectiveness. Ditto that for the fact that Catching Fire ends without plot resolution.
Why? Because this picture is about Katniss and how she . . . well . . . catches fire. From beginning to end (especially in the final shot), Lawrence, the director, focuses on Katniss’ path, and he resolves it, even if he doesn’t find a great plot-break.
The director’s cast, every member of it, helps him. A lot. None more so than his star. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is special. Very. She carries Catching Fire and channels emotion in almost every scene. We know her character, largely because of how well Lawrence fades into her, so much so that we forget we’re watching a reigning Oscar winner.
Jena Malone’s performance is equally remarkable. As a teenager, Malone seemed destined for stardom, but it has eluded her thus far, for whatever reason. Perhaps this performance will garner the recognition she deserves. In limited screen time, Malone is striking.
Yet, Catching Fire is not without some additional flaws. The nighttime scenes are a bit underlit, perhaps, and the director uses a few too many close ups. Furthermore, the pacing lags a touch in the middle and the writers all but omit mention of District 13, which eventually proves problematic.
But the flaws are minor and the strengths (including its amazing costumes and the way it never feels repetitive of the first movie) are prevalent. This is an excellent film.