The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, PG-13)

Catching-Fire 75The first film was relatively solid, and Catching Fire improves upon it in almost all aspects.

Catching-Fire 500

When the first Hunger Games movie came out in March last year, I and many other film critics couldn’t help ourselves from comparing it to the 2000 Kinji Fukasaku film Battle Royale. I bet you’ll be hearing a lot fewer comparisons to that predecessor now that the second in the Hunger Games series, Catching Fire, is out, but there actually is a sequel to Battle Royale, in Kenta Fukasaku’s 2003 film Battle Royale II (Kenta is Kinji’s son, if you’re curious). One reason you won’t be hearing the comparison so much is because a lot fewer people have seen BRII as have seen BRI. Another is that BRII is a truly atrocious film, probably one of the ten worst sequels I’ve ever seen in my life, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is actually a good one; the first film was relatively solid, and Catching Fire improves upon it in almost all aspects.

It seems worthwhile of me to clarify my stance going into the film, given how hugely anticipated it has been: I’m an open-minded non-fan. I haven’t read the books, I liked, but far from loved, the first film, and went into Catching Fire without having much in the way of preconceived notions at all. Unlike a lot of the rest of the world, I wouldn’t immediately know nor would particularly care if the film takes liberties with the book, or if the actor who plays Finnick is how I pictured him, etc.

As Catching Fire begins, Panem seems on the verge of a revolution — Katniss’ survival of the previous year’s Hunger Games and her role as a potential leader of a revolt have the oppressed masses of the districts of Panem itching to do something. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), meanwhile, is happy to be reunited with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), though somewhat troubled by her growing need and reliance on Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who fought side-by-side with her at the last Games. After touring the districts as the reigning victor of the Games (which tour is kept under tight control by the Capitol, so no untoward disruptions break out), President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is spared the gaudy makeup smeared across most of the rest of the characters from the Capitol) determine the best way to get rid of the threat that is Katniss (and Peeta, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and anyone else likely to revolutionize the masses): stage a Hunger Games amongst only the previous winners of the Hunger Games. An All-Star Hunger Games, of sorts.

Where the first Hunger Games movie started slow and dopey but then picked up when the Games began about halfway through the picture, Catching Fire starts relatively compellingly and then picks up from there once the Games get underway. That is to say, it’s a pretty solid and satisfying movie, with none of the rough patches that afflicted the previous entry. This seems a bit strange, too, as the original Hunger Games helmer Gary Ross has departed, and replaced by Francis Lawrence. Ross had a few successes behind him (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) at the time he directed the first film, where Lawrence has basically nothing but crap in his filmography (Constantine, I Am Legend, Water for Elephants). And while Lawrence turns in the better film, I doubt he would have been as successful without the mostly well-done groundwork that Ross laid for him. Also, when it comes down to it, the story of Catching Fire is better handled and more compelling than that of The Hunger Games, and that’s no smear against the first film, as its plot was pretty compelling itself.

The bottom line here is that this is the proper way how to handle a blockbuster sequel — keep everything that works about the first one, and improve everything that didn’t. We can add Catching Fire to the list of recent sequels that outdid their hugely popular predecessors: The Two Towers, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2, Spider-Man 2. I have trouble imagining very many people will be unsatisfied with this film. | Pete Timmermann

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