I have gone on the record numerous times saying that I thought the first Hunger Games was the worst film I saw last year. There were so many problems with that film ranging from incompetent direction to poorly written characters to really heavy handed symbolism. So when I say that virtually all my problems with the first film have been fixed and Catching Fire is a really good film you know that it has nothing to do with the other film. A big reason for the success, well replacing Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence and getting Simon Beaufoy to write the script is a pretty big indicator.
The plot of the film concerns the backlash to Katniss and Peeta surviving the Hunger Games in the first film. The survival of both of them has been viewed as an act of defiance against the Capitol and has led to riots in all the other districts. Because of this, President Snow decides to get rid of Katniss by forcing her back into the Hunger Games against previous victors due to a rule alteration possible in the 75th Games due to a law of the Quarter Quell. This plot helps to enhance the reality TV stuff from the first film. Since Katniss has to convince Snow that she and Peeta were in love with each other in the first half of the film, along with trying to avoid rebellion, the act of playing to the cameras and them showing a fake reality in public really works and enables the reality TV stuff to work a lot better than it did in the first film. There's also a lot more at stake in this film as there is the very real possibility that Katniss and Peeta will be killed because they are going up against experienced killers, not kids like in the first film. There are still some problems though. All the stuff with the design of the Capitol still feels heavy-handed and does make one of the plot twists incredibly easy to spot at the start of the film. The ending also doesn't feel that satisfying and is clearly just a cliffhanger designed to get people to go and see Mockingjay. That said, the plot does work really well as a whole.
The best part of the film though remains the cast. This is easily one of the best casts for a film series since Harry Potter ended and this film, unlike the first one, makes great use of them. This time, I understand why Katniss is such a good character, going through a lot of different, believable emotions all the way through the film and Jennifer Lawrence is able to pull all of these off excellently. Josh Hutcherson is also great as Peeta, bringing back the quiet, reserved nature from the first film with a lot more regret, which is easy to see in Hutcherson's eyes and body language. Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are just as good here as they were in the first film (which is something I will credit the first film with), Willow Shields is given a lot more character development to handle as Prim and Donald Sutherland brings a great sense of threat to President Snow. If there is any character from the first film I feel is not improved it's Gale. It just feels like he's been thrown into the series in order to add a love triangle to attract the fans of Twilight to the series and he could very easily be removed from the series and nothing important would be lost. The new cast members are also great. One of the main complaints I had with the first film is that all of the other competitors in the Hunger Games were very generic and forgettable, hell the only reason I knew the names of the District 11 tributes from the first film here is because we are told them again. The new characters though are very memorable and brilliantly acted. Jena Malone brings more character in her first scene as Johanna Mason than any of the other competitors in the first film with Sam Clafin, Jeffrey Wright, Lynn Cohen and Amanda Plummer being great as Finnick, Beete, Wiress and Mags respectively. Granted, some of the characters, mainly the District 1 and 2 tributes, are still incredibly under-developed but I can forgive that because of how great the other characters were. Phillip Seymour Hoffman meanwhile gives a great understated performance as Plutarch Heavensbee, making up a lot for how terrible Wes Bently was in the first film. There is still one aspect of the cast that has not been improved from the first film: Toby Jones is still wasted, only having about 20 seconds of screentime.
The technical side is also a massive improvement here from the first film. Whilst the design of the Capitol and the Districts is still incredibly generic, the overall direction is handled a lot better. The action scenes lose the atrocious shakey cam from the first film, enabling you to see what is going on throughout the film, a massive improvement from the first film. The whole design of the arena in this film is also a lot better than the first film. Instead of just being forests all the time, we get a rainforest, beach and lake landscape with the threats on display being integrated a lot better than the first film, whilst also explaining another problem I had with the first film, mainly why the characters couldn't just remove their trackers and leave the arena.
Overall, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a vast improvement from the first film. With the well written characters, good direction and a well written script, virtually all the problems I had with the first film have been removed. Whilst I wasn't really looking forward to this film and only saw it because of good reviews, I am now looking forward to seeing Mockingjay and I hope the series continues in the strong direction set up by this film.
My Rating: 4/5