Review: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is blazingly brilliant

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

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.

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity Jennifer Lawrence stars as ‘Katniss Everdeen’ in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

“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.

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)

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.

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) scheme.

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.

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity Liam Hemsworth stars as Gale Hawthorne.

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.

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

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.

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity Mags (Lynn Cohen) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin).

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.

Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

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

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (DVD / Blu-ray Combo + UltraViolet Digital Copy)

**All photos credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate Publicity

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32 thoughts on “Review: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is blazingly brilliant”

  1. i was kind of iffy… but you may have sold me on it. Yet my wife doesnt want to see this one. She didnt care for the first. I guess it was too sci-fi or death going on for her. I still want to see a english dubbed version of Battle Royal though

    1. Thanks! I haven’t. I am far behind my movies from books reading. Still have to finish “The Return of the King.” People who have read them don’t seem to be complaining much so that’s always a good sign. 😀

  2. Well, if it is as good as the first one I will be looking for it when it plays in Vietnam. The first one let us know we were in for a lot of copy cats. It was that new and refreshing in its story and style. But I did not read the books either. The books sometimes make the films disappointing to me as your imagination is always so so much more then the film can be. Jeff is this a new color scheme?

      1. Well it seems they have been opening here about the same time as they do in the U.S. There have been times that a big movie like this will open on the same day it does in the States. Unfortunately, I have not been paying as much attention as I should have. I have been traveling and busy with me ENGLISH PRONUNCIATION classes. I looked up it up on http://www.megastar.vn/en/nowshowing/ and it is starting November 27 = the day before Thanksgiving Day right.? Global market ain’t it Jeff? I will get use to the new design. It takes us old guys a little more time to pick it up. (smile)

  3. I’m so excited to see this movie, and even more so now after your glowing review. Suzanne Collins talks a lot about how her stories are meant to drive home the horrors of war, and both ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Gregor the Overlander’ leave their protagonists scarred at the end. I’m glad to hear that the movies are not shying away from that aspect.

    And also glad to hear that this one sounds even more action packed, which is exactly how the book was. Hope I’m just as happy with you after my viewing this weekend.

    1. I definitely got that impression from the film. It does a very good job of not glamorizing war or the loss of any life even for your own survival/

      Looking forward to hearing what you think after you see it!

  4. I havent seen it yet, but I was so upset when roo died in the first one. I think thats why the wife and I cant agree. She isnt so up for this. I think after it performed so good, im now curious and I will go see it myself. She is saving her movie pain for 12 years a slave. We building up for that. Just random aside, some movies we just agree to disagree to go alone or with friends. No tyler for me Jeff lol. If you review that “christmas” movie, it should be one line. It sucks. Sorry just had to throw the jab out there.

  5. Great review. And I agree with every point. Also, I’d like to add, at almost all scenes, the cinematography was bleak yet beautiful. Certain highlights include the opening shot of D12, Katniss starring into the distance, Katniss and Gale in the meadow before the reaping, opening shots of the Arena etc etc.

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