The success of The Hunger Games came from the stark quality. It was a film aimed at a wide, relatively young audience, and one that performed astonishingly well, but it never pulled punches. Instead, it treated its viewers like grown adults. Catching Fire picks up where the last film left off, both in story and in tone. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), now living in the ‘Victors’ Village’, are still exposed to everyday horror, and casual cruelty, and Francis Lawrence, taking over directing duties from Gary Ross, hammers that home with almost every beat of the film. It’s currently the vogue for insubstantial movies to cover themselves in a patina of grime to suggest depth; Catching Fire does the opposite, using the veneer of luxury to amplify the themes of control, sacrifice, and cruelty.
In spite of the heavy subject matter, the film remains accessible and entertaining. Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy’s script rounds off the rough edges from what is the weakest book in the trilogy to create a movie that forces the audience to engage with the movie’s politics, whilst still finding time to make the romantic subplot and obligatory love triangle work in a way that it never quite did on the page. The pair also manage to implement some logic behind Katniss and Peta’s return to the arena, so that it feels like the spiteful actions of a bully, rather than something that happens because the plot demands it.
The real triumph of the script though, is how ambiguous the characters Katniss and Peta meet in the Capital and the Arena are. Everyone is playing a game, and even in the closing moments it’s hard to tell just which side anyone is on. This is helped by Lawrence’s direction, as well as some great performances – particularly Jena Malone and Sam Claflin, as Johanna and Finnick, respectively, who manage to stand out amongst an exceptional supporting cast.
It’s the closing moments, though, that are the film’s biggest flaw, because for all the great performances and for all the remarkable production design and VFX – particularly the ‘Girl on Fire’ costume – it’s not a complete movie. What we get instead is a full first and second act, but a third act that ends half-way through, just as it feels like we should be reaching the climax. In fairness to Lawrence, Beaufoy, Arndt and co, the book does the same thing, but given how successfully they managed to sidestep some of the flaws in Collins’ work, it’s a surprise they didn’t try to do something here.
Nonetheless that doesn’t take too much away from Catching Fire, which remains an intelligent action movie, a thought provoking family drama, a political thriller and a story of budding romance, performed by some of the best actors in the world. It may not quite live up to the standards of its predecessor, but it far exceeds its source material. If you’re reading this review, you were probably going to see it anyway, but if there’s any nagging doubt, put it aside now and go watch this film.