Despite being based on a young adult novel, Gary Ross' 'The Hunger Games' belonged to one of the rare few which managed to attract a crossover audience from all quadrants, winning the praise of both critics and audiences alike. It did not pander to its core demographic of teenagers; rather, it played as a smart and gripping dystopian thriller set in a futuristic America called Panem which was run as a totalitarian state with one 'Capitol' and 12 districts. It was also a socio-political allegory on propaganda and violence as reality show entertainment, especially since the Games essentially pitted young boys and girls from the districts against each other in a fight to the last one standing.
'Catching Fire', the second instalment in Suzanne Collins' hugely popular series, assumes right from the start that its audience is familiar with the context and the events from the first movie. The script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn opens the same way as Collins' book, and that is by continuing right where its predecessor stopped. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow tribute cum romantic interest in the area Peeta Mellack (Josh Hutcherson) are back in District 12 after successfully winning the sympathies of their televised audience and defeating the rules of the game, but President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is neither amused nor impressed by their sleight-of-hand.
Unbeknownst to Katniss, her act of 'love' for Peeta has given people in the districts hope, and with that the courage to rise up against their oppressors. Whereas at first she was fighting for herself and her loved ones, Katniss has since become so much more, a symbol to galvanise the masses - if she had the tenacity to do so. It takes guts and no lack of clarity to vision for a 'Hunger Games' movie to make its audience wait more than an hour before the said competition actually gets along, but by doing so, Beaufoy, deBruyn and director Francis Lawrence sets this second chapter by making it more meaningful - and we dare say heartfelt - than the first movie.
More than half the screen time is therefore devoted to a tense and riveting exploration of the allegory behind Collins' books as parable about inequity and class warfare. From the sight of Peacekeepers enforcing harsh and brutal martial-like law on the citizens in the various districts to the indifference of the people in the Capitol, (Francis) Lawrence balances incident and exposition to stir up the indignation of his audience towards the sheer injustice of the totalitarian regime under Snow (which Sutherland, to his credit, portrays with chilling but never over-the-top menace). And yet, even though the scale on which the events unfold has grown much wider, Lawrence never loses the earlier picture's intimate focus on Katniss.
Yes, the character beats are still there - and if we may add, stronger than before. As she realises just how things have changed and will change around her, the 17-year-old Katniss has to decide if she will choose to cower under Snow's threat of her family or stand up for something more. That's no easy decision to make, and right from the beginning with a scene where Katniss goes into an anxiety attack recalling a kill she made in the earlier Games, there is never any doubt that she is no more than an ordinary teenager thrust and called upon to be brave beyond belief in these extraordinary circumstances. Jennifer Lawrence is truly excellent here, equal parts vulnerable and steely, and only the hardest of hearts will not be stirred to empathy.
Just so because it is the 75th Hunger Games, Snow and his new games planner Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) get to hatch a plan to put Katniss back into a new arena. The third 'Quarter Quell' will draw its contestants from among the pool of victors from the district, and since Katniss is the only female victor from District 12, she is automatically chosen. As she finds herself back at the Capitol, Katniss also finds herself amongst a more idiosyncratic bunch - among them the pretty blond Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and his octogenarian mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), the straight-talking rebel Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), and a pair of oddball inventor-types nicknamed Nuts and Volts (Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright).
Alliances will once again need to be forged in the field in order to survive, but besides the constant suspicion of betrayal, Katniss and Peeta now have to contend with more than just their competitors - the environment is a rigged jungle arena with poison fogs and killer monkeys as 'elements of nature'. It isn't any of the filmmakers' fault if the Games this time round lacks the earlier's knife-edge sense of danger; compared to the first book, Collins' doesn't make the Games count for as much as it did, for the very reason that they are but a means to an end, which serves as probably the worst kept twist ending that lays the groundwork for the third and concluding instalment 'Mockingjay'.
Indeed, those expecting a repeat of the earlier movie will likely find themselves disappointed. The straightforward thrills of Ross' film are somewhat more muted this time round; ditto the heady romantic triangle of Katniss, Peeta and Katniss' childhood sweetheart and best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). But in its place is a much meatier piece of sci-fi, built on compelling themes of tyranny, revolt and most of all personal fortitude, anchored in a fascinating lead performance by one of the best young adult actresses in Hollywood today. And all that pre-production trouble that saw Francis Lawrence stepping into Ross' shoes? Well, there's not even a hint of that here, and if anything, it's surer in tone and pacing and devoid of the annoying shaky-cam stylistics Ross employed.
True to its title therefore, this middle instalment genuinely catches fire, igniting the stage for what promises to be an epic conclusion.
Review by moviexclusive from the Internet Movie Database.