After The Hunger Games burned a Mockingjay-shaped mark on filmgoers, the pressure was on for I Am Legend director, Francis Lawrence, who took over from Gary Ross.
Fortunately, Catching Fire is bigger and grittier, slaying us in all manner of malicious ways – poisonous fog and man-eating monkeys included.
But first we begin in a near-identical setup to the first, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) back in District 12 and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) plotting something sinister.
He isn’t happy with the District 12 lovebirds and the currant coloured mess they left following the last games. Leaving the Capitol comforts to pay ‘The Girl on Fire’ a visit, Snow informs Katniss that their rule-bending win caused a stir in some of the districts. Rebellion is in the air, and he leaves her with a sinister threat of the district’s destruction that weighs heavy on her shoulders as she leaves for the Victory Tour in an attempt to convince Panem of her ‘love’ for Peeta.
The performances from the main three have stepped up a gear in the interim, with Lawrence and Hutcherson convincingly portraying the struggles of returning to life after participating in a public bloodbath, as well as the mental and physical preparation needed to gear up for round two.
Liam Hemsworth as Gale is granted a touch more screen time in the build up to what should be a lead role in the next instalment, and newbie tributes, particularly Johanna (Jena Malone), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), manage to make a deep impression in spite of the non-stop action. Another noteworthy addition is Philip Seymour Hoffman as new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee. The Oscar-winner brings gravitas to the role and steals scenes from Sutherland’s increasingly one-note Snow.
Bigger, better and more garish than ever, the Capitol scenes are breathtaking, its grandeur made obvious due to sweeping exposition shots, brilliantly juxtaposed against shaky and guerrilla techniques used within district-based scenes. But where Capitol colours have brightened, the overall tone has darkened, sticking firmly to the page when it comes to blunt hierarchical messaging.
Public lashings provoke a very real reaction, and when the Quarter Quell commences, the knife-throwing and axe-wielding is more brutal than first time round, though it’s still hampered by it 12A classification.
Inevitably, Catching Fire feels rushed in parts (the book is 400 pages-long), but choices regarding what to ditch, including the novel’s heavy wedding focus, were probably the right ones. A little more time could have been dedicated to the tributes, but with so many strong leads already fighting for screen time, it’s probably best audiences aren’t persuaded to bond too much; we know what happens to those entering the arena.
Author Suzanne Collins’ vision for the clock-shaped battleground, with its 12 sinister segments, has been brought to the big screen brilliantly by Lawrence; the game itself keeping you gripped right up until the moment Katniss fires that fateful arrow. This new tropical setting and its dangers are much more arresting than the forest, and the tension is so palpable that you’ll need a shoulder rub after to relieve it.
The cliffhanger conclusion will undoubtedly split opinion, leaving novel novices dangling in frustration, while fans of the book will appreciate the almost identical finale, right down to Gale’s final revelation, which we’ll keep quiet for the sake of those now running off to power through the trilogy’s pages.