In many cases the second film is either the best or the worst of a trilogy. Given the freedom of one success, the creators either expanding the world, raising the ambition and stakes and deeping the characters, or too closely mimicking the original into unnecessary parody or completely forgeting what made the original enjoyable in the first place. In the first case there’s The Dark Knight, Spiderman 2, X-Men United and, of course, Empire Strikes Back. In the second there’s Iron Man 2, Temple of Doom and, of course, Attack of the Clones. There are plenty of trilogies that went steadily down from the first film (Blade, Matrix) but for the sake of metaphor we won’t address those.
Although it’s part two of four it’s easy to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as the franchise’s Empire Strikes Back. While the first part introduces the world and characters and includes a more-or-less self-contained story, the second part is darker, where those worlds and characters are explored, larger stories established and threats become real. This is not the relative naivety of Katniss battling other overwhelmed teenagers in the jungle. This is Katniss facing a troupe of seasoned killers and an empire determined to destroy her.
While the identities of each district are only hinted at it’s clear that there is a lot more happening in the world than just Katniss and President Snow. Much of the film’s intensity comes from the opening victory tour, as the “lethal lovers” attempt to smile their way to pacifying the rowdy public. Every scene in their tour builds the unrest, another log on the pyre. Jennifer Lawrence proves she is the perfect fuel for this story, bringing the same determination as the previous installment, this time adding a deeper sense of frustrated powerlessness. No longer a trusting girl, Katniss is a war veteran, a survivor who’d rather enjoy the life she fought for than risk it again. Of the impressive additions to the cast, Jena Malone comes off the strongest, making Johanna into a vision of what Katniss could be without the grounding influence of her family. Unfortunately the two men vying for Katniss’s attention remain considerably weaker than their mutual paramour.
The film cools slightly once the games are set, but the various obstacles thrown in present several chances for impressive effects. The film still lacks a certain visceral terror that would come from a 24-person death match, but that’s to be expected from a YA novel adaptation. And even through its intensity Hunger Games is clearly a series aimed at teenage girls, from the waffling romance to the very obvious symbolism and outcome. Nonetheless, everyone involved is fully investing in making a strong statement. The result is impressive, emotional, at times powerful and moving, a darker, more mature continuation of Katniss’s narrative.
Catching Fire lives up to its name, and although we don’t yet know it’ll be the best of the Hunger Games movies, it does what every second chapter should: keep the story hot and spread its flames.