When Suzanne Collins' hit book series The Hunger Games finally made it to the big screen in the spring of 2012, there seemed to be an awful lot hinging on its success. It was important to fans, of course, that Collins' dystopia be successfully translated, and Gary Ross' slick, enjoyable film pulled that off to little complaint. But from the perspective of Hollywood executives, the stakes were even higher—with Harry Potter recently wrapped up and Breaking Dawn Part 2 due to stake the Twilight series in November, the future of lucrative genre-twinged young-adult franchise fare seemed up in the air. Without an established property to unleash once a year, the studio execs' rivals over in the TV division seemed poised to pull definitively ahead in the eternal war of guessing what teenage girls want to see.
But The Hunger Games: Catching Fire underlines why the appealingly epic Hunger Games was such an obvious bet to begin with. Picking up soon after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have won the kill-or-be-killed competition that gives the series its title, the second of four movies first sets about dealing with the ramifications of their unusual win. The couple must maintain the delicate fiction of both their romance and their support for the government that put them through their ordeal, even as they travel the 12 districts of Panem facing down the families of the losers and slowly realizing their symbolic role in a brewing revolution. And that's just the first half hour or so.
Director Francis Lawrence brings a bleaker tone that suits the darkening mood, but loses the keen spectacle that made Ross' film such an accessible (and satirically pointed) introduction to the post-apocalyptic country of Panem, and to its glitzy capital city in particular. There seems, in fact, to be a galling lack of interest in further establishing the world of Panem at all. Where the first film was occasionally sly in meting out Collins' futuristic and even mildly fantastic details, Catching Fire is outright blasé. And though social unrest within the districts is key to this stage of the story, neither the struggle of Panem's people nor the tyranny of its government are given any context beyond how a handful of main characters are affected.
This sort of laziness illustrates Catching Fire's abiding flaw: Screenwriters Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy presume that the audience is bringing an undue amount to the movie, and they use that as license to zip from place to place without giving scenes, relationships, and ideas their proper space. The solidifying love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and hometown beefcake Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is perhaps the biggest casualty, establishing an insight-free status quo that undermines the complications. (If anything beyond the events of the first film's games define Peeta as weak and pitiable, no one here is letting on.) A sequel is excused from re-establishing its core elements, but an effective sequel takes the time and care to reinforce. Catching Fire settles for passively referencing what's come before, and for someone who saw the original once, a year and a half ago, that's not enough to prevent an hour-plus of shrugging.
Catching Fire is a trickier and ultimately more interesting story than The Hunger Games, but it's presented almost too efficiently here; several scenes have apparently little more objective than putting across the most crucial information the same scene covered in the books, missing chances for flourishes or consideration of pacing while telegraphing certain details as specifically important. It shouldn't be so obvious to someone who hasn't read the books that they cut out so much good material.
None of this is to say that Catching Fire is a bad film, or that fans will be at all displeased with it. Once the Hunger Games heat up, the film's final hour becomes the clear highlight of the series so far, propelled by its eagerness to subvert expectations and break entirely away from the first film, whose structure it generally echoes to that point. And it's forever worth mentioning that Jennifer Lawrence's performance alone lends the film a legitimacy that was far from guaranteed.
In its naked interdependence on the first film and the two to come, though, it's also hard not to see Catching Fire as an unwelcome look at how serialized television may be giving back after taking so many cues from the cinema. Might The Hunger Games have worked better in that format anyway? Would it have afforded more space for the fine details?
Why give us so many reasons to ask? Because as a film Catching Fire isn't much to write home about, but it's a pretty killer episode.