Catching Fire is a work of thoughtful, emotionally engaging sci-fi — everything that its predecessor The Hunger Games was not. Filmmaker Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), who took over the reins of the franchise from director Gary Ross, uses the same approach Alfonso Cuarón did when he elevated the Harry Potter series with The Prisoner of Azkaban. He doesn’t settle for just cutting and pasting Suzanne Collins’ novel onto film: Lawrence makes an actual movie, with characters who are much more than mirror reflections of the protagonists in the book.
For example, the budding love triangle between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), her fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and her District 12 neighbor Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which in the first movie felt like a contrivance cribbed from Twilight, now comes off as genuine and complicated; you fully understand how and why the young woman’s affections have been divided by two equally worthy suitors. Part of the reason may be that screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn aren’t burdened with having to introduce and establish these characters: They only have to build on what came before. But the quality of the performances in Catching Fire is noticeably stronger — Lawrence in particular seems much more concentrated and invested as the conflicted Katniss — and the acting sells the human elements of this enormous movie, anchoring the spectacle with characters you actually care about.
Catching Fire will be utterly incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t see the first film or read the books: Lawrence doesn’t coddle the audience with helpful exposition or backstory. The premise is simple: The despot President Snow (Donald Sutherland), troubled by the increasing rebellion Katniss and Peeta have inspired amongst the populace after circumventing the rules of the annual kill-or-be-killed competition, holds an all-star 75th anniversary of the games, with all the contestants plucked from the pool of winners from previous years. With the help of his new assistant (a devious Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow intends to make sure neither Katniss nor Peeta survive this time.
The cast of Catching Fire has expanded, allowing us to get to know more than just than a handful of the competitors. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are wonderfully strange as a pair of eggheads known as Nuts and Volts who use science, not violence, to compete in the event. Jena Malone is terrific as the prickly, impatient Johanna, and Sam Claflin exudes A-list charm as the handsome Finnick, who may or may not be trustworthy. The basic structure of Catching Fire is almost identical to Hunger Games: The first half of the movie is devoted to the ramp-up to the event, and the second half concentrates on the deadly olympics. But the film never feels repetitious: Instead, our familiarity with the pageant invests the movie with subtle social commentary. Like President Ronald Reagan did when he appropriated Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. for political purposes, Catching Fire illustrates how governments can use and manipulate entertainment in order to trick the hearts and minds of people.
Catching Fire was made on a budget of $130 million — a $50 million raise from the first movie — and Lawrence puts all the extra money on the screen. Gone are the chintzy, stage-bound feel and lousy CGI of the first film. The chariot sequence in The Hunger Games looked like it was shot against a green screen: It was cheesy and unconvincing. The chariot sequence in Catching Fire looks like it was shot on location, which may just be the result of better special-effects work. But the improvement in production values and shrewd changes in costuming and set design make the movie less cartoonish and more grave (Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket still has a thing for ridiculously elaborate makeup and dresses, but this time they’re not so garish that they make want to you look away from the screen). Even the violence, while still rated PG-13, is more effective and brutal without being explicit.
Catching Fire is the second chapter of what will be a series of four films, so the fact that it ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger should surprise no one. The difference this time is that you come out of the theater eagerly awaiting the next picture. Suddenly, this franchise has gotten interesting. Unlike so many other recent attempts to capitalize on the success of popular young adult novels, Catching Fire plays as well to adults as it does to teenagers. Start lining up now.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Sam Claflin, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones.
Director: Francis Lawrence.
Screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn. Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins.
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik.
A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 146 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, brief gore, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 20 at area theaters.