Suspicions that the follow-up to the The Hunger Games was a roaring dud were stoked when news emerged that the film's distributors were refusing to press-screen the film in Ireland. Such a fate most often befalls the sort of films that have "killer apes" and "the planet Bongo" in their titles.
After attending a midnight screening with real people, we remain puzzled by the decision to forbid journalists. Building on the first film's menace and adding in some depth of character, Catching Fire offers most everything you'd want from a sequel. And it actually does feature a few killer apes.
The plot wrestles with a common dilemma in sequels: how do we get the characters back into the series' trademark conflict? At the end of The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen (now more centred than ever) and Josh Hutcherson's Peeta (still a tad underpowered) appeared to have outwitted the overlords by engineering the titular conflict in such a way as to allow both to survive. We join them as they embark on a victory tour of the districts. Along the way they detect certain intimations of bubbling discontent.
Katniss and Peeta's subversion of the system offers hints that the oppressive regime may be more fragile than it seems. The authorities – now bolstered by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Machiavellian games master – set out to manipulate the heroes impending marriage as a kind of anti-propaganda. Then the violence begins again.
More money has been thrown at the project this time round. But the real improvements (on an already very effective opener) stem from canny directorial decisions rather than increased levels of opulence.
Taking over from Gary Ross, Francis Lawrence( I Am Legend) proves less addicted to hysterical camera moves and amphetamine editing. Catching Fire is energetic when it needs to be and, utilising a sombre colour scheme, subdued when that seems like the most suitable tone.
The end result is a proper thrill ride that also offers surprising insights into the dynamics of tyranny. Far from being a mere holding pattern, Catching Fire feels like an advance and an improvement. Let the games continue.