The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens with our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) still haunted by her actions from the previous film. She returns as the “girl on fire”, still struggling with the pressure of being the 74th Hunger Games victor and a symbol of hope for the 12 districts of the post-apocalyptic Panem. Meanwhile things have changed for Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in District 12. No longer do they live in poor conditions as their victory has put them and their families in luxury homes. Waiting for Katniss is President Snow (played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland) who has a plan for her, while the residents of the 12 districts start to revolt against Snow's dictatorship.
Director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) replaces Gary Ross and his shaky cam and is joined by many other new faces, such as Jena Malone’s cynical Johanna Mason, Jeffrey Wright’s nerdy Beetee and Amanda Plummer’s twitchy and nervy Wiress. Philip Seymour Hoffman's sly portrayal of Plutarch Heavensbee, the new game maker for the 75th Hunger Games, particularly stands out. Unfortunately these new faces are not awarded enough screen time for the audience to enjoy them completely and they are disregarded to make way for the characters we are already accustomed to but are ultimately less interested in. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch gets roughly the same amount of screen time as he did in the previous film but recycles much of his performance, which quickly becomes tiring and predictable. Elizabeth Banks also returns as Effie Trinket whose flamboyant costumes and big personality once again want to take over the scenes and she soon becomes as annoying as Haymitch in distracting from the more intriguing characters and storylines in the Hunger Games story. Even Peeta, another key character, is mostly boring and bland, gazing at Katniss as he clings onto a relationship that does not exist.
While the film does not give enough screen time to many of the more colourful characters, now Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence displays a spectrum of emotions from dealing with the loss of a close friend to defiantly standing up to Snow's guards. In a chilling scene just before Katniss enters the game, she loses herself uncontrollably when her close friend and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) has a run-in with Snow's bodyguards. The brutality shows how far Catching Fire sets itself apart from recent teen franchises, presenting it as a series that should be taken seriously.
The games are also more ruthless and challenging than the first. This time the players face experienced fighters and previous winners and also have to compete with an increasing number of deadly obstacles including poisonous fog, tidal waves and a very tense stand-off against some vicious “monkey mutts”. This is where Francis Lawrence’s work on I am Legend becomes evident as our characters are plunged into fighting for their lives and the sense of upcoming dread. The tension continues to grow throughout the games and, despite an abrupt ending, especially considering the extended running time, the film has certainly raised expectations for the third instalment.