Heading into “The Hunger Games” last year, I fully expected a “Twilight”-style dud, despite my enjoyment of Suzanne Collins’ novel series. What I got was something far different – a grim, uncompromising dystopian vision shot through with biting social critique, which ended up being one of my favorite blockbusters of 2012. And happily, despite its somewhat humdrum source material, “The Hunger Games – Catching Fire” nearly reaches the same heights.
Following their success in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, protagonists Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are back home in blighted District 12, where they’re forced to deal with the pressures of cultural-figurehead status. Naturally, the totalitarian Capitol (administrators of the Hunger Games) is displeased with Katniss’ victory….a victory won through defiance of the established rules. And as both Katniss and Peeta soon learn, the Capitol has merciless ways of dealing with those who – however inadvertently – contravene its commands.
The first hour or so is fantastic – far surpassing its predecessor. The PTSD-afflicted Katniss, required to wear in public a smile that’s little more than a forced rictus, has emerged as an unintentional catalyst of revolution…and the brutal costs of this quickly become apparent. Director Francis Lawrence evokes, with disturbing effectiveness, the psychological claustrophobia that comes from living under constant scrutiny. It’s dark, bracingly intense, and very, very unlike a typical “young adult” blockbuster.
It’s probably not revealing too much to say that another Hunger Games ends up being held, in which both Katniss and Peeta are forced to compete again. And it is here that “Catching Fire” begins to slip a little. To be fair, this problem derives exclusively from the weak plotting of the source material, but the “Games, version 2.0” (harsher and more pulse-pounding though they may be) simply feel a little less fresh this time around. There’s no way around this – and perhaps it’d be more fair to treat “Catching Fire” exclusively on its own merits, pretending that installment #1 never happened – but as it stands, the film does suffer from more than a touch of deja vu.
None of that is to say that “Catching Fire” is in any way a “bad” film, or not worth seeing. Jennifer Lawrence (now with a Best Actress Oscar to her name) is exceptional as always, rendering Katniss more likable onscreen than in Collins’ story. (For that matter, the entire film is much, much better than the rather limp “Catching Fire” novel). Despite the 2-1/2 hour runtime, not once does the movie drag…a remarkable feat, particularly in a second installment. And it’s worth acknowledging that despite heavy use of CGI, the effects never end up depersonalizing the (very human) narrative.
Go see this one, particularly if you enjoyed the first…and even franchise cynics will find much to appreciate here (particularly in the riveting first half). One can only hope that the forthcoming two-part sequel (an adaptation of the violently polarizing final installment, “Mockingjay”) continues to meet the high bar its predecessors have set.
A more-than-worthy sequel to a surprisingly great action flick…even if it does feel a bit reheated.
Normalized Score: 6.9