'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Review: A Worthy Sequel That Improves On The Original

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn't your typical blockbuster sequel. Yes it's bigger and better than the original movie. The stakes have been raised and new characters are added. But what makes Catching Fire unique is how it's infused with a gravitas most major Hollywood entertainment lacks. At every single turn, the plight of the citizens of Panem is felt as they face the cruel tyranny of the Capitol, adding layers of pathos and tension to everything we see. Couple that with the impressive IMAX visuals and a more surprising story, and Catching Fire joins that rare breed of sequels that improve on the original.

In Catching Fire, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to go on a nationwide tour celebrating their victory in the 74th annual Hunger Games. It's supposed to be the beginning of a wonderful life of leisure, but thanks to the defiant way they won those Games, things are beginning to change everywhere. They're forced to act as government puppets as the citizens of their country Panem get more and more openly angry at the government's control. Eventually, the Capitol makes an example of the pair, and the recent winners are forced to go back into the Games to face 22 other previous victors.

It's as if the Capitol is saying to the people of Panem, "We can kill your heroes. What would we do to you?"

Structurally, Catching Fire has three distinct acts. There's the tour, the preparation and the games. One would assume the games are the highlight but since the whole film, written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (the latter under a pseudonym), isn't as much about the Games this time, the other two acts are even more engaging. It here director Francis Lawrence expands the world from the first film and builds the themes that'll play out over the course of the series.

Lawrence does a wonderful job throughout, balancing Katniss' signature restraint with a rising rage as things bubble up around her. Hutcherson too has found a real comfort in the role of Peeta, playing second fiddle to his would-be-girlfriend. Around them, the returning cast each have  more fun with their wacky characters and help keep the movie filled with energy. Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci are particular standouts.

The main problem with the film is, at well over two hours, things tend to get repetitive. We've already seen the training, we've already seen the parties, and while there are new wrinkles to each of these, they don't do wonders for the film's pacing. The Games especially have this problem as the tributes, which include amazing new additions played by Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and especially Jena Malone, basically run from problem to problem to problem. There's fun there, and lots of impressive effects, but it always feels secondary to the story outside the arena. Even so, that outside tension never lets up and anticipation builds knowing, eventually, fire will catch.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire improves on the first film in almost every way and is a wonderful addition to a growing franchise. Its flaws never overshadow the fact it's a smart, inspiring Hollywood blockbuster.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10