Catching Fire is to the Hunger Games series what The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight were to the Star Wars and Dark Knight trilogies, respectively. I am by no means putting Catching Fire on par with those movies, but in terms of tone, scope and overall improvement over the original, the comparison is apt. Catching Fire expands the universe established in The Hunger Games, and is darker, more ambitious, and manages to raise the stakes for Katniss Everdeen in unexpected and profound ways.
A year after winning the Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) still live in District 12, trying to stay under the Capitol's radar. This proves impossible when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) forces them to embark on a victory tour of the districts in an attempt to quell the burgeoning resistance by keeping up the appearance of their star crossed romance. Despite her best efforts to lay low, Katniss has become a symbol of the districts' resistance to the Capitol. In order to crush the rebellion before it begins, Snow forces Katniss, Peeta and the other surviving victors to participate in the 75th Hunger Games, called the Quarter Quell.
Catching Fire improves on The Hunger Games in almost every way, particularly in its production design. The first film had an almost Spartan quality to its look due to the (relatively) modest budget. The sequel had almost double the money to play with and its all on screen. The special effects are better developed, the Capitol is more opulent, from the buildings to the incredibly over the top costumes, and the Hunger Games arena is grander and full or lush detail. Director Francis Lawrence eschews the shaky cam style of the first film for more classic composition, and the cinematography by Jo Willems is beautiful.
The design would be beside the point if the story and characters didn't hold up. Fans of the books should be pleased with how faithful the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt stays to the source material. Unlike certain other young adult series (cough Twilight cough), The Hunger Games features a heroine whose ultimate happiness and goals don't revolve around choosing between two hunky/brooding suitors. That's not to say that conflict doesn't exist, with Katniss having to demonstrate affection for Peeta that may or may not be genuine while home town honey Gale (Liam Hemsworth) sulks in the background; it's just that Katniss has more immediate concerns.
Once again Jennifer Lawrence proves she is one of the finest actresses of her generation, instilling Katniss with a humanity, fierceness and complexity that Kristen Stewart can only dream about. The entire film tilts on her axis, and would hold up even without the great cast of supporting players. The returning cast is superb, particularly Stanley Tucci as master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, displaying depth of character not present in the first film, and Lenny Kravitz with his subtle turn as stylist Cinna. Philip Seymour Hoffman adds welcome gravitas as new Gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee, and Jena Malone brings a feral quality to former Hunger Games winner Johanna.
The action centerpiece of the film is, of course, spectacular, with the veteran Victors fighting their way through a jungle that keeps throwing an array of deadly traps their way every hour. For those unfamiliar with the books, the film offers twist after twist, and all the while Lawrence's performance keeps us riveted. The film is funny, tragic, exhilarating, sometimes all at once, and ends in a stark cliffhanger that makes the wait for Part 3 almost unbearable. Not bad for a series of movies that is basically The Running Man without Arnold Schwarzenegger.