There are many advantages to the second installment in a successful franchise. In theory, the first film has already done a lot of the leg work for you. The world building and initial character establishment? Well that’s up to the first film. Once all that tedious business is out of the way, the second film can just let her rip. That’s certainly what Catching Fire did and, in doing so, left the somewhat patchy Hunger Games in the dust. So some of that we can chalk up to the advantage of being a second film and some of it we can chalk up to better source material (a second and therefore more confident book in a successful franchise). But beyond that, the tone and variegated elements of this film click together in a way that the first one never managed. That I’m chalking up to a better fit in the director’s chair. Gary Ross’s direction of Hunger Games was fine if a bit stodgy. Which makes sense if you look at his filmography (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit). The new director, Francis Lawrence, brings all the flash bang wallop this franchise needs. Which, once again, makes sense if you look at his filmography (Constantine, I Am Legend). Lawrence is a much better fit for the world Suzanne Collins created and I couldn’t be happier that he’ll be at the helm for the next two films. (The unnecessarily split Mockingjays.) Here are 13 things Catching Fire got right that Hunger Games got wrong. Spoilers abound.
The Comedy: This elevator scene is the one most people are talking about. Why? Because we need some damn comedic relief in a bleak film about political oppression, socio-economic divides, terrifying violence and our culture’s rabid appetite for it. The first film didn’t hit many comedic notes outside of Woody Harrelson’s excellent Haymitch but here we have a more palatable blend. Between Jena Malone’s sassy, confident delivery and Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing reaction face this scene was a delight.
The Tragedy: As I said in the intro, this film has the advantage of the established relationship between Katniss and Cinna. The death of Rue in the first film was very disturbing but we really didn’t get much more than a handful of moments between the impossibly adorable Amandla Stenberg and Jennifer Lawrence. We felt the pang of Rue’s loss on an intellectual level. We understood that these games put cherubic youngsters in danger. But we feel the attack on Cinna on a visceral level. We’re trapped in that tube with Katniss experiencing all the fear and agony with her. That has to do with not only the established relationship but Lawrence’s go-for-broke performance and the framing of the scene. Absolutely terrifying.
But even the smaller deaths, Mags or The Morphling, were just handled better and ached a little deeper.
Archery: We know Katniss is good with a bow and we saw her hit plenty of birds and apples and targets in the first film, but this is exactly the kind of flash I’m talking about. This simulation put both Katniss’s skill and Jennifer Lawrence’s training on display.
The Fire: Remember the fire from the first film? It was alright.
But isn’t this the first version turned up to 11?
The Violence: The way the violence was handled in the first film was one of my biggest problems with Gary Ross’s direction. When the brutal attacks were in full swing, the shaky cam he seemed so fond of went into over-drive. That shake combined with some lens flare obscured the brutality of the games. Now, granted, Ross had a much harder job of depicting an arena populated with children rather than the older veterans Francis Lawrence had to work with. But the unforgivable violence against children is part of the point. Ross whiffed it. This arena, on the other hand, is a much bloodier place. Literally. The howler monkey scene was terrifying, let alone the skirmishes at the cornucopia. I’m not a fan of violence for violence sake, but given that it’s an integral part of the larger story in play, I’m glad it was done right.
Tapping Into That Hutcherson Charm: My viewing schedule on Sunday went like this 1) Hunger Games rewatch 2) Josh Hutcherson’s episode of Saturday Night Live 3) Catching Fire. One of these things is not like the other and it’s the one where the very charming Hutcherson appeared to be made entirely of wood. That’s you, Hunger Games. You blew it. Peeta is much more likable in this second film. So open and endearing. That’s who Peeta should be. That’s why we care so deeply that this installment of the story ends the way it does and why…well…spoilers for the third book, I guess.
At Least Two Legs Of This Love Triangle Are Working: Unfortunately, Liam Hemsworth didn’t fare any better in this film. You can’t build a relationship based on one term of endearment, film. Keep trying.
But, like I said, at least part of this thing is finally working.
The Other Tributes: I take it back. I take back everything I said about the miscasting of Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair. Yes I was initially disappointed that Kristen Bell didn’t win her campaign to play Johanna. But Jena Malone brought a ferocity, resentment, rage and violence to Johanna that I’m not quite sure Bell is capable of. Her Johanna would have been more Mean Girl. But this is the Johanna we deserve.
And it’s a completely mystery where all of Sam Claflin’s charisma was in Snow White And The Huntsman. Sucked into the gaping void of anti-charm that is Kristen Stewart? He’s a one-man smirk machine here. Absolute perfection.
It’s not quite fair to compare these two (and the lovely Wiress and Beetee) to the tributes of the first film who were mainly enemy ciphers and had the disadvantage of being played by children. But it’s much more fun to watch an entire group of fully-fleshed characters go to battle in the arena rather than watch another round of Katniss vs. The World.
The Horrors Of The Arena: Once again, Francis Lawrence has the advantage here in that he’s working with a much cooler arena. One with a high concept and a defined perimeter. (I did miss Plutarch’s pocket watch, though. They couldn’t have slipped that into the dance scene?) But you have to admire what Francis Lawrence and his effects team did with the fog alone. Just the way it crept, before it sizzled and raised pustules, was terrifying. Compare that to the laughable failure that was the Muttations of the first film and you have to thank your lucky stars we’re in better hands.
Effie: Book 2 Effie is leaps and bounds more mature than Book 1 Effie so we can chalk this up to character maturation but it was lovely to watch Elizabeth Banks play more than just the wig.
Prim: I also saw Ender’s Game this weekend and really admired the invaluable work Abigail Breslin did as Val Wiggins, the emotional center of the film. It made me wish they had cast a stronger young actress as Primrose Everdeen. But between the first and second films both the character and the actress have grown up nicely and I found her scenes here much more believable.
Let Philip Seymour Hoffman Be Philip Seymour Hoffman: No topiary beards here. Nothing to get in the way of a fine performance from an actor hitting well below his weight class. Plutarch hardly looked like he belonged in The Capitol, but I didn’t mind one bit.
Let Jennifer Lawrence Be Jennifer Lawrence: A far more interesting piece could be written about the parallels between Katniss Everdeen the character and Jennifer Lawrence the actress. Watching Katniss on her endless publicity tour was so reminiscent of what we’ve seen in the past few weeks (years) from Jennifer Lawrence. And in this movie more than the last, Katniss seemed to be bringing the patented brand of Lawrence Snark we’ve come to love. But what, then, separates us from the painted Capitol hordes?