Catching Fire
Credit: Murray Close

Empire Strikes Back or The Matrix Reloaded? The Dark Knight or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest? Often, the follow-up to a sure-thing franchise starter, freed of the demands of table-setting exposition, delivers a deeper, more character-driven story. Other times, the sequel is a double-down rehash that makes you second-guess what you liked about the original in the first place. And occasionally, the second film is a space-holder, a bridge from the movie that first introduced the characters to the third (and fourth) chapter that will ultimately determine their fate.

With Catching Fire, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, critics seem to be leaning towards a combination of 1 and 3. It’s a more-confident, more-polished movie that delves deeper into Panem’s political conflict. But it’s also more a prequel to the first of two Mockingjay movies than a sequel. There’s a bigger universe to explore and Catching Fire is necessary to get us there.

Jennifer Lawrence is back as Katniss, who’s struggling with post-traumatic stress after out-shooting and out-thinking the competition in the Hunger Games, allowing her and her for-show boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to survive as co-winners. She’s thrown back into the Hunger Games arena to battle a collection of all-star killers when President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing rebellion in the oppressed districts, correctly sees her as a threatening symbol of defiance.

The rest of the Katniss entourage is back as well, with Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, and Stanley Tucci reprising their roles under the direction of Francis Lawrence, who takes the reins from Gary Ross. Joining the team are Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the Capitol’s clever new Gamemaker, and Sam Claflin, as a beefcake gladiator who’s equal parts lover and fighter.

But it’s Jennifer Lawrence, who some moviegoers did not even know pre-Hunger Games, that makes Catching Fire more than just the latest big YA box-office spectacle. The 23-year-old actress has won an Oscar since she last visited Panem, and critics are impressed that she commits to Katniss just as much as she would a complex David O. Russell character. “She more than holds her own, turning her face into a dreamy-pale Valkyrie mask,” writes EW’s Owen Gleiberman. “You react to every wave of sadness and fury roiling around inside Katniss, even when Katniss isn’t allowed to show it.”

A movie like Catching Fire doesn’t need the critics to give it their stamp of approval to win the weekend, but click below to see what they are saying about the sequel before you purchase your tickets.

Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly)

Catching Fire is smoothly exciting but a bit of a tease. It gets mileage out of setting up the Quarter Quell as some ultimate Fear Factor version of Deliverance, yet there isn’t a moment of real dread in it. The film also sets up Katniss, with her sizzling (in every way) costumes and goth-Cleopatra makeup, as the feral face of revolt, but the cliff-hanger finale reveals that she is, thus far, a passive agent in this revolution.”

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)

“Now an Oscar winner for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has clearly taken this role very much to heart, throwing herself into it to such an extent that she creates genuine emotion from what is essentially pulpy material.”

Steven Rea (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“With a convincing athleticism and an ability to shoot death rays of empathy, anguish and obstinance out of her eyes, Lawrence manages to transcend the sillier set pieces of Catching Fire, elevating the (ahem) game in the process.”

Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)

“Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz buzz around engagingly as Katniss’ entourage. You keep waiting for better zingers, which never arrive, but The Hunger Games isn’t about wit; it’s about blunt lessons in hypocrisy and class warfare, about to be waged but good.”

“The real fun is glomming the glam in the frocks sported by Katniss, her competitors and her dizzy escort Effie Trinket, whose gaiety is strained, nearly hysterical, and whose outré garb is so tight it seems ready to crush her, like a Lycra python. You’ll come for Survivors All-Stars and stay for Project Runway All Stars.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)

“Clothing plays a central role in Collins’ books, and finally, the crew seems capable of bringing her elaborate costumes to life, including the impossible-sounding wedding dress Katniss wears to her big TV interview.”

David Edelstein (New York) ▲

The Hunger Games was relentlessly misdirected by Gary Ross, with his tiresomely indiscriminate handheld camera and inability to wring much emotion from child murder. Relatively speaking, Catching Fire is terrific. Even nonrelatively, it’s pretty damn good.”

Rene Rodriguez (Miami Herald)

“Francis Lawrence uses the same approach Alfonso Cuarón did when he elevated the Harry Potter series with The Prisoner of Azkaban. He doesn’t settle for just cutting and pasting Suzanne Collins’ novel onto film: Lawrence makes an actual movie, with characters who are much more than mirror reflections of the protagonists in the book.”

Kimberley Jones (Austin Chronicle)

“[The director] improves on the first film’s chintzy, rather benign idea of the bacchanalia that is Panem’s capital city (no atrocious green screens here). Lawrence nails the grotesquerie and arm-hair-pricking menace but good, with costume and set design strengthening the case, for a far more psychologically toothsome experience.”

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter)

“Across the board, the new film boasts a noticeably spiffier, more confident feel than the first, even as the overriding impression is one of methodical responsibility to the source material.”

Claudia Puig (USA Today)

“The teen love triangle remains front and center, to keep youthful book fans engaged. But the film’s social commentary on celebrity obsession is more intriguing than the bland teen romance.”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 75

Rotten Tomatoes: 92 percent

Hunger Games: Catching Fire
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