(Dir: Francis Lawrence, 2013)
It should come as no surprise that Catching Fire is a better film than the first Hunger Games. What is a surprise is that both of these films have been so damn entertaining. Where The Hunger Games succeeds over other teenage franchises is ideas - there is something going on here that's interesting and almost adult in nature. There's also a whole lot of world-building to be done in the great tradition of science fiction, which this seems to borderline be, and a central conceit that although essentially ripped off from the book / film Battle Royale, works by adding a different cultural spin that feels more relatable to modern times, even if that twist itself has been riffed on for many years. Catching Fire should be a better film as the hard-work establishing everything has been done, so a more developed story can now (in theory) be told.
Whereas in the first film the world-building and preparation was fascinating whilst the games themselves were a somewhat frustratingly drawn out toothless experience, Catching Fire ends up in the reverse position. The weak point of this film is the touring of the "special" couple and the flaccid romance between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but it comes alive again as soon as the prospect of a new games is upon us with a focus on politics and who can or can't be trusted. These games are instantly more interesting with a better premise and a touch more menace, with foes who actually seem like they might be dangerous. Also helping greatly are Donald Sutherland's President Snow, who gets a decent amount of time to snarl, and Philip Seymour Hoffman proving why he is an asset to every film he appears in. Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson remain likeable even if Katniss' brooding negativity gets annoying. At least we continue to have a strong female lead and the romance side of things is downplayed in the second half.
Catching Fire offers another couple hours decent entertainment and like the first film, I'm left wanting to know where this is all going. It may end suddenly but it probably happens at about the right point, and at least the film gets better as it progresses. There really is a lot of story potential here, but having heard from multiple sources what a mess the final book is, perhaps it's right to not hold out any hope for the last two films being as enjoyable.