It’s a bit obvious to say “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a great film. It’s so well done that it justifies every moment fans have not so patiently awaited the second installment of what has become the most satisfying franchise since “Harry Potter.”
The real question is if “Catching Fire” is one of those rarified sequels like “The Godfather Part II,” “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back” or “Aliens” that is widely hailed as better than its just as impressive predecessor.
In a lot of ways that’s a resounding yes, even if “Catching Fire” doesn’t make as drastic as switch from what happened previously.
“Catching Fire” has a definite sense of déjà vu going for it. The dynamics have changed a bit, but the film comfortably walks along the trail blazed by the original. Most of the familiar memorable moments from the first film are echoed here from the state of despair in the Panem districts, the grandiose parade of competitors, interviews and the games themselves.
In most cases, sequels that stick so closely to the original will quickly turn off audience members looking for something more than a new location and a couple of cast additions (see: “The Hangover, Part II”).
That’s not the case here though as yes, “Catching Fire” is familiar, but the stakes are higher, the characters more complex and Director Francis Lawrence (“I am Legend”) is more than up to the task of making the sequel a thrilling and memorable experience.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “Epic”) may have survived the 74th annual Hunger Games, but the events from the brutal contest pitting children against one another in a fight to the death has left them both psychologically scarred.
For Katniss, the simple act of hunting for food now triggers traumatic flashbacks. As her mentor, Haymitch (the fantastic Woody Harrelson, “Now You See Me”), reminds her there are no winners in the Hunger Games — only survivors. Michael Arndt’s script quickly gets across the point that war is a terrible, haunting experience … even if the participants emerge alive.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is still seething over Katniss and Peeta messing up the games and being declared co-winners.
Worse, Snow realizes Katniss is becoming the symbol of a rebellion, which is growing increasingly more defiant of the Panem status quo where the disenfranchised have scraps while the elite binge on life in the opulent Capital.
Francis Lawrence follows the unwritten sequel rule of making everything bigger and more expansive, particularly at the Capital where the upper class are even more obnoxious and overbearing with their garish makeup and obnoxious wardrobe. Costume designer Trish Summerville assembles some truly creative pieces that fully capture the spectacle of Capital life.
Fearing Katniss would become an even more powerful martyr, Snow threatens her family and close friend/crush, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, “The Expendables 2”), unless she plays along as a happy Capital propaganda puppet. Forced to pretend that the injustices she witnesses are acceptable and her “relationship” with Peeta is real, Katniss wonders if she’ll ever escape from Snow’s glare.
Salvation comes in a strange way via the 75th Hunger Games, where the tributes (Hunger Games competitors) are selected from the previous winners.
With a new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (“The Ides of March’s” Philip Seymour Hoffman at his smug, overconfident best), just as interested in seeing Katniss dead, the odds don’t seem to be in her favor this time out at all.
Katniss may be the girl on fire, but Lawrence is electric. She’s asked to hit a wide range of emotions and she never falters, making Katniss one of the most engaging and relatable protagonists we’ve seen in decades. It’s a shame Oscar voters raise their noses at action dramas as Lawrence delivers a stronger performance here than in her excellent Best Actress winning role in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
The supporting cast doesn’t drop the ball either whether it’s Hutcherson perfecting the faithful friend; Elizabeth Banks as the goofy, but endearing Capitol chaperone Effie Trinket or Stanley Tucci’s over-the-top Hunger Games announcer Caesar Flickerman.
Newcomers Beetee (Jeffrey Wright, “Broken City”), Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, “Snow White and the Hunstman”) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) are welcome additions to the series. You expect Wright to deliver, but Malone and Claflin bring a new element to the film that I hadn’t realized was lacking until their arrival.
Forget all the “Team Jacob” and “Team Edward” gibberish, Arndt writes a far more compelling love triangle. It’s easy to see why Katniss would legitimately be torn between Peeta and Gale and Arndt crafts it in a way that doesn’t make Katniss look like a two-timer.
Once all the political machinations are out of the way, it’s on to the Games. Lawrence staged the Games in Hawaii so the backdrop makes for a gorgeous backdrop to the nightmarish scenarios conceived by Heavensbee.
Yes, it’s another massive deathtrap complete with poison gas, lightning storms and floods — in addition to the psychopathic competitors — but it’s not as suspenseful the second go round since it seems inconceivable that something would happen to Katniss or Peta.
That sense of familiarity with the format helps Lawrence deliver a genuine surprise at the film’s climax that will leave those who haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ novels with a ton of questions and highly anticipating the next installment, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” set for Nov. 21.
Just a very long 365 days exactly from today, but plenty of time to watch this excellent second chapter again and again.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
**All photos credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity