It’s the characters, stupid. A common complaint I have about movies—special-effects extravaganzas are particularly susceptible, but any movie can screw up this way—is that big splashy surprise occurrences can cause a film to seem arbitrary, and once it feels arbitrary, it’s basically a $200 million lava lamp. (Oh, look—they’re fighting this. Uh huh, now they’re fighting that.) The characters in Catching Fire have one thing after another thrown at them, but the filmmakers have so successfully invested us in the characters and their complex relationships that we’re less interested in what lies behind that mysterious fog than in how the characters will react to it.
Don’t dwell on the effects. Gary Ross, director of the first Hunger Games movie, got this—if anything, his camera moved too quickly over the wonders of Capital City. Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence is a bit more indulgent in letting us gawk at the wonders his special effects team has wrought, but he’s still efficient: when we’re looking at something, we’re looking at it because it’s relevant to the story, not because it’s a fancy effect that Lawrence wants to make damn sure we appreciate.
Keep the love story in its place. Much has been said about how empowering it is that the Catching Fire love triangle is subservient to the larger plot, that the film doesn’t become The Most Dangerous Bachelorette. That feels progressive, but it’s also smart storytelling because it rings true. We’re fascinated by romantic relationships and we want to believe that love has transformative powers, but we also know that even in our relatively mundane lives, romantic love is not the beginning and end of all things. There are deep currents—family, career, geography—that tug us together, and sometimes tug us apart.
A sequel should extend the first part, not repeat it. When I saw that The Hunger Games part two was going to contain another Hunger Game, I got a little nervous. Haven’t we already been there? Yes, but not only does Catching Fire vary the competition’s circumstances in an interesting way, it puts the new competition in the context of a larger developing plot. In this way it reminded me of what remains possibly the best sequel of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. That movie succeeded in all the ways the original Star Wars succeeded, and then did the older film one better because Empire was able to build on the relationships and circumstances established in the first film and thus raise the stakes. 95% of all sequels squander this bounty and just rehash the original, which comes out worse for the wear.
Less can be more. Your dad likes to carp about how things were better in the day, “when they didn’t show so much.” Films like Catching Fire demonstrate that, at least with popular entertainments, the old man might be on to something. Because Lawrence had to deliver a PG-13 movie, he crafted scenes of violence that make their impact through timing and emotion rather than through gore.
Acting matters. Not only did Ross and Lawrence hire good actors, they actually let them act, giving them space to claim and use dynamic range. Philip Seymour Hoffman underacts to the point where the producers must have wondered where they’d find a scene for the trailer where Hoffman didn’t look like he was waiting in line at the bank, but in the context of the film that was absolutely the right decision: Hoffman’s presence and weight carry the role. Jena Malone, another newcomer to the series, has a juicier role, and she makes every juicy line count.
The movie can be better than the book. Suzanne Collins is a masterful plotter, but sometimes an awkward prose stylist. There’s nothing awkward about the Catching Fire movie, which feels taut and compelling. Even when adapting a beloved book, there’s an opportunity to make a film that’s, in some ways at least, more effective than the story’s original incarnation. A pointed contrast is Peter Jackson’s ongoing Hobbit adaptation, which bloats and diffuses the story instead of streamlining and enhancing it.
Ditch the song. This is the one case where Catching Fire sets a negative example rather than a positive one, making the same misstep that the first Hunger Games film made and the new Hobbit film also makes (sorry not sorry, Ed Sheeran, though at least you look more like a hobbit than Taylor Swift looks like Jennifer Lawrence). When did all of Hollywood decide that the best way to end a cinematic epic was with an insipid ballad that turns the story’s events into bland metaphors? With her Titanic song, Céline Dion won this competition, point, set, and match. Of course, that’s another post.