There's nothing, as I recall, specifically wrong about The Hunger Games, the massive smash hit that sent a brand-new franchise into the stratosphere early in 2012. There's also nothing specifically right about it - it's a perfectly satisfactory piece of consumer product with some smart casting choices and a humongously forgettable script. While its first sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is also, first and foremost, a piece of consumer product, it's also better in pretty much every imaginable regard. If nothing else, it demonstrates with considerable clarity and urgency why it's better to put a director with post-apocalyptic action film experience in charge of a post-apocalyptic action film than a director who made a biopic of a horse.

As the sequel to a colossally successful hit film gets to do, Catching Fire plays the "rabid fanbase" card extensively in the opening hour, recapping the story of the first entry not one iota. And this is not the only time it scrimps on the exposition, though it's the only time that it can be argued even a little bit that it's playing fair. Fact is, the first act of the film is an unholy nightmare of screenwriting, speed-walking through details and character beats that aren't set up properly, never pay off, or both. The impression one gets is that screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (working under his "Michael deBruyn" pseudonym) weren't looking to tell a rich, involving story of life in a totalitarian post-apocalyptic state, but to slough off every single plot point from Susanne Collins's novel that could be removed while still leaving enough of a skeleton that what's left is a narrative and not a collection of interconnected sketches. And if this was the goal, it is met uncertainly:even having read the book, and not so very long ago, either, I found myself a little mystified at every single thing that happened, or why it was all happening so fast, or why it was happening at all, come to think of it. This is, in fact, the only single regard I can think of in which Catching Fire fails to improve on The Hunger Games: that script also had its rocky patches of leaving info out, but not so much, nor for such a lengthy uninterrupted stretch as the chaotic and undernourished opening 30 minutes of its sequel.

The situation, anyway, is that 17-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), co-victor of the 74th Hunger Games, is called upon with fellow champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to tour the 12 colonies of the dystopic Panem, to keep the population cowed and horrified, just as the Games themselves are largely meant to do. Unfortunately for the forces of authoritarianism, Katniss's particularly defiant gesture that won the Games has made her the rallying point for rebel groups in all 12 colonies, and the psychopathic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has taken her aside privately to promise that if she can't reassert control for his government, she and Peeta and their families and everyone she likes even slightly will be killed with very little hesitation. When this fails horribly, due mostly to Katniss's inability to express joy or any other kindly emotion in front of people, Snow hits upon another idea: use the numerically emphatic 75th Hunger Games to drag Katniss back into the arena along with 23 other former victors - including Peeta - and dispose of her that way.

The movie makes it far more clear than the book that this was a deliberate act by Snow and Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, a new addition to the franchise), and since I talked so much shit about Beaufoy and Arndt up top, it pleases me to say something nice now: Among the many ways that Catching Fire improves upon its predecessor is that it takes advantage of the almost inevitable shift from the novels' first-person present-tense perspective, rather than simply accommodating it, and it adds quite a bit of plot material outside of Katniss's presence that serves greatly to deepen and flesh-out the film's world, which feels a lot more defined here than the "rich people with tacky taste" mode of the first movie, which I liked, though I know many did not. Simply put, the screenwriters and director Francis Lawrence (whom I suspect got the job based on I Am Legend) put a lot more care into their depiction of the society in which the plot occurs, and it feels more real - and a shitload more explicitly Roman Empire Reborn - than in the last movie.

Nor do Lawrence's improvements end there. He and cinematographer Jo Willems employ a more strapped-down camera than Gary Ross and Tom stern used last time, and the visual clarity that results is better in pretty much every respect imaginable: the drama is more intimate, the action in the Hunger Games arena clearer and more brutal (though like the last film, there's a distinct sense of a movie straining hard not to get an R-rating, something that I expect to become quite debilitating in the back half of 2015's impending Mockingjay - Part 2). Particularly in the cool-down at the end of the film, leading into an impressively well-handled cliffhanger - the final shot is pretty terrific given how boring it would sound if I described it - Lawrence's approach makes both the stakes and the character psychology clearer than they were in the last film.

All that being said, they're still not that clear, though a well-assembled cast does what it can to make figures who barely register among the chaos of the plotting pop off the screen - that Lawrence is once again best in show largely by default is not surprising, given the overwhelming focus on her from the script and camera both (she's certainly no better nor worse than in the last one), but Hutcherson is hugely improved from the suffocating vanilla blankness of his performance before, or in most things, and Jena Malone, of all people, is a pretty fantastic addition as an angry, nihilistic former victor. Along with the great big list of people showing up for extended cameos, or little more than that, some of whom are limper in this go-round (Elizabeth Banks), some better (Stanley Tucci).

The biggest problem with the film, once again, is that it ultimately sort of hollow: Collins's social commentary wasn't the most complex and insightful thing ever penned, but it's pretty deep for YA genre fiction, and that's almost completely absent from the carefully de-politicised movies (it doesn't help the first third of the novel, the best storytelling in the trilogy of books, from my perspective, directly corresponds to the worst-written part of the movie). The action is well-paced and handsomely naturalistic - you forget what a popcorn movie without intrusive color correction even looks like until you see one - with some uncertain CGI at points; the last hour of the film is as exciting as any popcorn film of 2013. That's less than half the movie, mind you, and in an ideal world, we'd have better praise for films with laughably gigantic piles of money by the end of their third day in theaters than "almost half of it is exciting, but kind of shallow". Still and all, it is exciting, appealing to look at, and it ends on a well-paced high note. Fun nonsense is better than annoying, muddled nonsense, anyway. And since this is highly likely to be the best of all four Hunger Games pictures, it does well to enjoy it while we can.

Reviews in this series
The Hunger Games">The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015)