The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review: The odds are in this movie’s favor

The original Hunger Games film revealed both the triumphs and pitfalls of adapting a wildly popular book. While it was ultimately considered a success, its rushed pace, uneven acting and shaky cinematography left many cold. Catching Fire, the hotly anticipated sequel, feels like the movie the original film should have been. Thanks to a new, dedicated director in Francis Lawrence along with better source material, the film is a triumph both as an adaptation and a mass-produced entertainment that should thrill diehard fans and series newbies alike.

The story picks up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing for their victory after “winning” the 74th Hunger Games, a brutal blood sport started by the Capitol of Panem to keep the twelve districts from instigating a revolution against the oppressive regime. The Capitol is thrilled by Katniss’ and Peeta’s victory, as well as their seemingly budding romance, but all is not well. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees their dual victory as an act of defiance, and so did many of the districts, who begin staging a series of small uprisings. Snow makes it his mission to stamp out Katniss, the symbol of the revolution, for good by forcing previous victors back into the arena for another round of the Hunger Games.

One of the great pleasures of this film is seeing returning actors embody these characters. While Lawrence’s Katniss came off as somewhat robotic before, here we get to experience her full range of emotions as well as the toll the games have taken on her psyche and relationships. Fresh off her Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has grown leaps and bounds as an actress, and it shows. Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ competing love interest, Gale, are also given much more to work with here. Elizabeth Banks’ garish, Lady Gaga-esque Effie is a scene-stealer once again.

There are tons of new faces as well. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new head game maker Plutarch Heavensbee is a particularly inspired choice of casting, and may well be some fans’ favorite character come series’ end. Sam Claflin is brilliant as previous victor Finnick, and Jenna Malone steals scenes as the vicious Johanna Mason.

Director Lawrence (I am Legend) is a great replacement for Gary Ross, whose first film was a bit sporadic in its execution. The camera stays still and wide much more often here, allowing us to thankfully see the beautiful vistas and intense action much more clearly. Veteran writers Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) shove a lot of characters and events into 2 ½ hours, but the film never feels bloated. Scenes are allowed to breathe, and they thankfully avoid the rushed ending of the first film. That Catching Fire ends on a cliffhanger is a natural consequence of the movie being a middle chapter, but at least it’s a good one (brilliantly shot and exactly the same as the book, refreshingly). The fact that so much material fit into one movie without any major omissions is somewhat of a marvel.

Catching Fire is not a perfect movie. There are small plot holes here and there, and, in a film with so many characters, some are bound to be underdeveloped. But, in every important way, it’s the perfect sequel. It amplifies the things that worked in the first film while all but eliminating the many things that didn’t. Lawrence has breathed new life into a franchise that was already in danger of becoming stagnant, crafting an utterly satisfying, visually stunning and insanely thrilling ride from start to finish. It even achieved the rare feat of getting me genuinely excited for the next one. Your move, Hobbit.