'Catching Fire' Defies the Odds as a Bolder, Smarter Sequel

Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Runtime: 146 minutes
Grade: A

Time to eat a little bit of crow. When I Am Legend and Water for Elephants director Francis Lawrence was tapped to take over duties for The Hunger Games franchise following the departure of Oscar nominee Gary Ross, some skepticism surfaced over whether the adaptations would continue to meet the heights achieved by the invigorated and largely faithful -- not to mention wildly-popular -- first film. Despite being entertaining-enough movies in their own right, neither of Lawrence's previous book-to-screen projects have strong reputations for their closeness to the source material, leaving confidence up in the air for Catching Fire, the daunting middle entry in Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy of young-adult books. Those suspicions appear to have been premature, though: not only has this continuation of Katniss Everdeen's saga of rebellion, spectator manipulation, and conflicted love matched the initial film that ignited the spark, it confidently surpasses its predecessor in nearly every way possible, from craftsmanship and faithfulness to sheer exhilaration.

The story picks up half a year after the events of The Hunger Games (watch out for spoilers for the first film), amid the biting cold of winter in District Twelve. Victor Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook) has struggled to get her life back to normal -- especially involving her best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, Triangle) -- following her time in the mandatory to-the-death arena, which will complicate further as she goes on tour with the unexpected second victor, her feigned boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right, to the other districts in a display of the Capitol's power. Before that, she's greeted by President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Don't Look Now), the authoritative leader of Panem, who suggests that he knows the depth of her deceit during the games, how she and Peeta manipulated the system and spectators into letting them both live for the sake of love. Her resistance to the Capitol during the games has sparked rebellions in response to the yearly Reaping and class structure, something she's forced to calm if she wants to keep her family and friends alive. Katniss, still a blunt and standoffish teenager, must choose to either play the Capitol's game or step up as a figurehead for the rebellion, with Snow ready to respond either way.

Catching Fire boldly roots into darker material by first centering on Katniss' mental integrity and moral constitution, delving deeper into the character's psyche than in The Hunger Games. Her experiences in the arena, the murder of other children and the joy derived from their brutality by the audience, manifest into a form of post-traumatic stress that the film actively explores, hinged on a blistering performance from Jennifer Lawrence as the burgeoning freedom fighter. The Oscar-winning actress' inherent heart-on-sleeve candor becomes crucial to realizing Katniss' internal trauma, commanded by the manic and fearful energy in her reactions as she sees violent images that aren't there and awakens in the night to harrowing dreams. There's a subtler melancholy behind her presence as well, though: the understated glances she shares with her maturing sister Prim (Willow Shields), her rekindled friendships with Peeta and Gale, and how she jolts her drunken mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), out of his stupor reveal a young woman bottled up with a cocktail of cynicism and desperation, justifiably unready for the challenges ahead.

Adapted from Collins' second book in ways that perhaps outdo even the text, those challenges consist of an uptick in the story's themes about authoritarian government and police enforcement, rendering a harsher dystopian atmosphere as Katniss and Peeta traverse the districts. Granted, director Lawrence can only go so far with depictions of brutality in a PG-13 film aimed at broader audiences, but Catching Fire certainly captures the bleakness and simmering intensity of a burdened nation on the brink of revolution, down to underscoring the volatile events -- the bloodshed -- catalyzing their fury. The work the production crew have done in shaping Central Georgia's locations to fit this bleak but arresting vision are constantly spectacular: the desolate and hopeless atmosphere of the industrial districts, held at gunpoint by white-clad peacekeepers, funnel towards the candy-coated center of privilege benefiting from their destitution, the Capitol. Where the first film emphasized the harrowing spectacle of the games with addled camerawork, the second focuses on the disparity and anxiety between social classes through Limitless cinematographer Jo Willems' steady, stunning gaze at Panem and its denizens.

Director Lawrence has his own challenge to handle with the book's story, since it'd be easy -- and not unjustified -- to look at Catching Fire's return to the arena for more bloodshed as an auspicious rehash, in a franchise that already deals with the baggage of emulating the likes of Battle Royale in its design. Katniss' resignation to death and the participants in the Games themselves, all previous victors with their own idiosyncrasies, give the plot the alternate perspective needed to mask the similarity. Revisiting the media exploitation and pop-culture critiques on reality shows are made intriguing by Katniss' bleak self-assurance and the collective passion of the elder participants, while the building of alliances and training exercises invite those watching into the minds of past tributes. Clearly, there's more to them than meets the eye: Sam Claflin lends suspicious magnetism to the chiseled, primped gladiator Finnick, while Jena Malone's embodiment of the rebellious axe-wielding whackjob Johanna Mason adds a clever parallel to Katniss' quieter and stoic resistance. The road to the arena might be similar, but it's an entirely different ballgame once they're at the Capitol.

In the arena, all of Catching Fire's alternate attributes come to a head, leading to vastly more engaging and visually alluring action beats created by a wide array of dynamic threats, both human and not. The jump to the big screen aids the activity in Collins' text in becoming clearer, which could get overly hectic and jumbled at times. Francis Lawrence's prowess as an action director shines in the complex combination of practical and digital effects, coming together in the tropical aquatic atmosphere in fast-moving, dangerous ways. The renegade flames and dogs from the first film were only the tip of the iceberg: the tricks up the sleeves of new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (a reservedly charismatic Philip Seymour Hoffman) play directly into the deadly reality-show spectacle that the narrative so richly critiques, the shock and awe at his fingertips adding visceral surprises around every corner. Yet it's all part of the book's thrilling beats, the script taking very few liberties with the way the games go down. Shot almost entirely with IMAX cameras for breathtaking scope, it's an exhilarating forty-five minutes that buries the previous film's arena experience (something that can't really be said about the books).

There's also a veil of mystery, of suspicious moves and countermoves, going on within the games in Catching Fire, building towards a bittersweet lead-in to the final chapter(s) of The Hunger Games saga, and a fruition point in Katniss' journey towards becoming the face of the uprising against the Capitol. Sticking close to the source material ensured that the film would, ultimately, end on a cliffhanger that leaves questions only answerable by the next installment and, without doubt, feeling like a bridge between installments. Yet, even under those limitations, this adaptation finds a way to visibly underline Katniss' personal development across this individual story, in a rewarding and inspiring final burst as the film's final words hang in the air. That's what happens with a clear grasp on the source material, and it's really exciting to behold how Francis Lawrence not only maintained the strengths and spirit from the franchise's origin point in a reputable sequel, but improved upon them in surprising, reverent ways that make one eager to storm the castle alongside this girl on fire in the next one.

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