Last year's smash hit, "The Hunger Games," was of a quality similar to many smash hits in recent years: it was good, but not great. Despite a bevy of things it did well, there were a number of story issues and missed dramatic opportunities that were only made all the more apparent by the undeserved hype its fans were spreading.
Its sequel, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," fixes many of its predecessor's mistakes. The drama is more potent, the story better structured and, though it eventually falls into more or less the same dragged-out rhythm of the previous film, the stakes are raised higher. The movie still doesn't rank among some of the best this year has had to offer, but it's a marked improvement and sets the stage for a promising final installment.
Since the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have become celebrities. Their story of love has captured the hearts and minds of the people in their districts, much to the chagrin of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Their actions have sparked a rebellion among the lower districts, which is seen as a threat to the Capitol.
It's now the 75th year of the Hunger Games and every 25 years, the Capitol has a special event, a quell, to celebrate and remember the Capitol's victory over the people's uprising all those years ago. This year, President Snow, in an effort to subdue the districts' recent attitude change brought on by Katniss, announces that they will take previous winners of the Hunger Games and pit them against each other. Once again, Katniss finds herself in dire situations, but with the help of some as-of-yet unknown allies, things may begin to change.
If the original film was about anything, it was about our bloodlust, our desire to watch people destroy themselves and each other in an entertaining way. It may be an easy allegory given the destructive reality television personalities our society focuses on, but it's also a truthful one. We've become so accepting of these things that it hardly fazes us anymore. "Catching Fire," on the other hand, is a wake-up call. It's about not standing for the status quo if that status quo is corrupt or evil.
More specifically, it makes a connection between the perpetuation of fear by media figures. In the film, President Snow wants to keep his people docile and prevent an uprising through the use of manipulation and misinformation, knowing full well that fear is a powerful tool and strong suppressant. Comparisons to so called "news" networks like Fox News are easy to see and this is where the film finds its grounding. Its greatest strength is in its commentary.
Of course, that commentary isn't exactly subtle. Not much about the film is. The art direction is also once again simultaneously fascinating and perplexing, with clashing schemes of drab, bleak colors in the slummy districts and bright, colorful decor in the extravagant Capitol. Although the colors and costumes are meant to distinguish between the poverty stricken and those who live lavishly, the distinction is too extreme. When one aspect of the film is realistic and grim while the other feels like a cartoon, it inadvertently gives itself a confused tone.
Where "Catching Fire" surpasses the original is in its emotionally charged story. The original had some great dramatic moments, but they felt isolated from the story as a whole. After young Rue died in a tremendously sad scene, she was quickly forgotten and the trauma such an event would have on Katniss was never fully explored. There were no dramatic ripples that carried throughout the entire film.
"Catching Fire" is the opposite. Few individual moments have deep impact, but the product as a whole combines to create overarching emotion that builds steadily and doesn't go away until the end credits begin to roll, and this is despite the inconsistent tone. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" isn't perfect and will no doubt be spoken of in hyperbole by its many supporters, but it's nevertheless a step up in nearly every regard.