The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review: A Bigger, More Interesting State of Play

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The original Hunger Games film did two things very well: build Katniss as a strong protagonist and build the dystopian world around her. Catching Fire doesn’t change the formula, but makes everything else just as strong.

That is, in fact, how you make a superior sequel to its predecessor. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Catching Fire shows remarkable restraint and expands upon everything that was great about the first film.

The plot plays out pretty similarly to the first film: Katniss and Peeta (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, respectively) are chosen to compete in another set of the Hunger Games, this time against other past winners and in a more dangerous environment. They must still perform and do all the fluff, which allows for vibrant characters played by Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Woody Harrelson to return. Who’s complaining?

What separates this film from the last, however, is the effect of the events in the last film. How many big franchise heroes suffer from PTSD in their sequels? That’s part of what makes Katniss the compelling role model the media is always saying she is. She’s real. Vulnerable, but never weak.

Also different, or perhaps just made better, is the theme of revolution laced into the plot. The stakes feel higher than ever right from the get-go. War is clearly on the horizon, and while it’s not in this entry, the process of getting there is. What a fascinating journey it is.

At what feels like half way through the film’s nearly two and a half hour runtime, which zips along to the closing credits before you can work out how to do that whistle, Katniss and Peeta enter the arena again. There’s more action, more bloodshed, and, surprisingly, way more character moments.

Admittedly, when Rue died in the first film, the emotion felt forced. Not here. When it comes time to return to the game, every death, and there are a lot of them, resonates far stronger than anyone could have expected. Director Francis Lawrence hits every beat just right to make this the most emotionally effective blockbuster of the year.

That is until the climax. Or lack there of.

Yes, this is a middle chapter, but even Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers have exceptional climaxes that close out their individual film on a satisfying but foretelling note.

Things happen way too quickly in Catching Fire‘s closing minutes. The nature of the cliffhanger is rushed to the point of television quality. Except Mockingjay Part 1 doesn’t hit theaters next Thursday night. Both of the middle chapters I mentioned above closed out a chapter for their characters before enticing us with teases of what was to come. Catching Fire does the opposite, preventing it from going down in history as one of the best sequels ever made.

But it still comes pretty damn close. Jennifer Lawrence still commands the screen as the best onscreen heroine this side of Ellen Ripley. The political themes are still charged enough to create a fascinating backdrop behind the flashy games. There is still a sense of fun to be had when certain over-the-top characters appear on screen. For these reasons, despite a faulty climax, Catching Fire is a roaring success. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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