Overall, Catching Fire is maybe marginally better than its predecessor.
There are a handful of things it does much better. Its staging of action sequences is largely done with a steadier hand, something that adds a level of tension that was mostly missing from last year’s original film. Whether a result of the disillusionment that comes from having been forced to participate in a murder-game for the enjoyment of the masses, or of the fact that she is growing older, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a steelier edge than before; she’s both bitter and calculating, fluctuating between determination and resignation. So the characterization of Katniss and the tone of the film are far better handled here than they were before. Nevertheless, the strengthening of those (admittedly key) elements doesn’t fully compensate for the movie’s weaknesses.
To begin, there’s the matter of the relationship arc which is unfortunately preserved here. Reading comments about this film from some who have read the series, it seems as though “who Katniss ends up with” is a major issue that must be resolved. Yes, Katniss’ feelings for her co-tribute Peeta add some stakes in the killing field, but is a maybe-romance necessary to build those stakes? There was no indication that Katniss had any romantic feelings for Rue, a character from the first film, and yet some would argue that a moving relationship was forged between the two nonetheless. Okay, I get it, this is a movie based on a young adult book series, but the wounded way that both Peeta and Katniss’ at-home boyfriend Gale passive-aggressively whine about the status of their relationship is incredibly grating. Katniss would do better to clean her hands of both of them.
In Catching Fire, the insubordination of refusing to kill in the prior Hunger Games have led to the tremors of an uprising in Panem. I thought the politics of the first Hunger Games movie were the most intriguing aspect before, but this has been forsaken for full-blown villainy here. Yes, for much of the first half of the movie, Katniss is required to force smiles and read cue cards pretending to be grateful for the honor of being a victor, but it’s thin. Why does she have to pretend, exactly? The President of Panem (Donald Sutherland) orders random executions and floggings, has his jackbooted thugs burn down villages, and at one point literally says to a gathered crowd, “Even the strongest…cannot overcome the power of the Capitol.” In short, between the last movie and now, he’s become explicitly evil. Gone are the days where a dress made of fire is a legitimate strategy for wowing the audience, thus bolstering your chances of success in the Games (something that wasn’t even all that well-developed before). Now when Katniss pushes a button to set her gown aflame, it’s superfluous – just show.
Speaking of “just show”, now is as good a time as any to describe the most egregious example of pointlessness in the whole of the film. While at the Capitol, training for the next round of the Hunger Games (the rules have been changed so that prior victors are re-selected to participate again), Katniss, Peeta, and their mentor Haymitch step inside an elevator. They are joined by Johanna (Jena Malone), who quite inexplicably strips completely nude in front of them, eventually departing with a wink and a cheeky one-liner (“It’s been fun,” or something like that). The scene is imbecilic, not least of which because it features Katniss scowling at Peeta’s interest – OMG you guys I think she might actually have the hots for him after all! No, there is no place for dumb, irrelevant scenes like this in an action-drama. What’s the argument, that it shows the character’s confidence or something? The same effect could have been achieved without sinking so stupid.
With the exception of Katniss, who suffers from traumatic hallucinations and nightmares as a result of her time in the first Games, pretty much all of the characters are poorly drawn. As an example, see the first appearance of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who has exactly two character traits: alcoholic and moral crusader. He’s introduced passed-out drunk at a dining table because it humanizes him, don’t you see? He’s a do-gooder, but with a bad streak in the form of a debilitating addiction that’s only mentioned occasionally as a source of humor. It helps flesh out his character in an utterly lazy, cliche way, so long as a total of two character traits are enough to be considered “fleshed out”. I suppose one might argue that new addition Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the designer of this year’s Hunger Games, is a deeper character… but no. His defining trait is the mystery of whether he’s actually a good guy or actually a bad guy, and being “mysterious” on its own isn’t an example of strong characterization. And then there’s Amanda Plummer’s almost entirely inessential character, who, for no real reason, refuses to give any information to Katniss except in the form of a cryptic riddle – and then fades from the movie entirely.
Again, Catching Fire has some strengths. The action sequences in the Games are mostly done very well. There’s a dimly-lit attack that’s absolutely pulse-pounding. Even more exciting is a sequence where a swarm of jabber-jays (mockingbirds, basically) descend on Katniss while screaming in her younger sister’s voice. She huddles down, impeded by an invisible force-field while Peeta, inaudible behind the “glass”, tries to calm our heroine. It’s an emotional, well-executed moment. And yes, there’s a triumphant feeling as Katniss takes control of the situation once again, even if the resolution is both expected (cut to President Snow slamming his fist down, growling, “No!”) and ridiculous in its execution. But the narrative surrounding these kind of viscerally exciting moments is flimsy: forgoing the subtlety that could have made the drama compelling in favor of easy black-and-white good versus evil. It’s no longer a matter of political maneuvering, and now just a question of who fights better – a disappointing path for a series that began – shakily, yes – but with promise.