I recently rewatched the original Hunger Games to prepare for this review and I realized that it isn’t quite as strong as I remember it being. Sure, it’s well directed and it makes good use of its large budget, but there were simply too many problems with the film’s narrative. Because of this, I was worried that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire would not live up to the massive hype that the public has bestowed upon it but, luckily, it is a huge improvement over the original film. Vastly greater in terms of story, scope and sheer ideas, this film proves to everyone what all of the fuss has been about regarding this young adult franchise.

Having cheated the system, the two winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are forced to go on a victory tour of all twelve districts. Before the tour begins, Katniss is visited by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who informs her that she must continue her romance with Peeta, so that their act of defiance appears to have been done out of love and not out of rebellion. For a brief moment, Katniss and her family appear to be safe. But with the 75th annual Hunger Games approaching, no one is safe, not even previous Hunger Games victors.

It’s a given that Catching Fire was bound to make a boatload of money regardless of the film’s quality, so it is even more admirable that this second feature in the insanely popular trilogy has been treated with the utmost care. Director Francis Lawrence is able to inject the film with an excitement that the previous installment simply didn’t have enough of. The stakes are higher and things get exciting much, much faster. Credit must also go to series author Suzanne Collins and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt for expanding upon the universe set up in the original film with much more adult themes and concepts.

One of the most obvious improvements in this installment is the development of the characters in the Hunger Games themselves. In the first film, other than Katniss, Peeta and Rue, none of the contestants in the Games were given any depth of character. They were simply bland caricatures, used to advance the plot from point A to point B. In Catching Fire, while not all 24 contestants are able to be developed, a good majority are at least given some type of characterization. Many of these new characters are among the most interesting of the entire series with Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone) being among the clear standouts. This is not only a testament to the film’s fine writers, but also to the great performances from the entire supporting cast.

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson give solid lead performances, allowing the audience to experience the pain and horrors of this dystopian society along with them. Liam Hemsworth gets a much larger role in this installment as Gale Hawthorne, but his much larger role also places extra emphasis on the film’s love triangle, which is, in my opinion, one of the weakest aspects of the series. No fault of the performers, this is a plotline that feels far below what the rest of the series is trying to achieve.

I hesitate to spoil anything that occurs in the second half of the film, but I will say that the 75th annual Hunger Games are far more exciting and interesting than the 74th. This basically sums up the entire quality of the film, because The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is far more exciting, engaging and relevant than its predecessor. The film’s ending will leave both casual viewers and diehard fans of the franchise hungry for more.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire receives 3/4