A year after her boat-rocking victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has discovered that the world outside the arena is even more dangerous than the one inside. The stunt that saved both her and Peeta Mellark's (Josh Hutcherson) lives also put her squarely in the crosshairs of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the leader of Panem. As a repercussion of her actions, Katniss and Peeta see their names called to return to the arena in what amounts to an all-star competition in the 75th Hunger Games. But there's more at stake here than just the fight for survival and soon Katniss is embroiled in something far bigger than just herself.
I think a lot of people were surprised by the quality of the first Hunger Games movie last year. The books, in my opinion, range from "solid" to "tired" and contain just enough of a teen romance subplot to make me skeptical about the Twilight-ification of a movie adaptation. But the first film turned out quite well for me and became one of the year's biggest hits. That movie laid a solid foundation for what was to come and gave me hope for what was to come in further adaptations that, quite honestly, don't have the quality source material to draw from that the first one did. Even with heightened expectations, I couldn't have expected Catching Fire to be anywhere near the outstanding blockbuster it turned out to be.
Two big things happened in the time between The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. One, directorial control shifted from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence. Now, I am in the minority but I thought Ross did an excellent job with the first film and I was bummed to see him exit the project. But Lawrence turned out to be the absolute right man for the job. He adds an edge to Catching Fire that was missing in the first film and this bite, if you will, brings home the realism of the travesties the film depicts. As such, this film is a significantly more emotionally charged film than The Hunger Games ever aspired to be. Lawrence, I think, had a stronger understanding of the material and that shows in the finished product. (To be fair, Ross' job was to lay the groundwork whereas Lawrence's was to expand upon that.)
Two, in the time between the release of The Hunger Games and the start of production on Catching Fire, Jennifer Lawrence became a willing movie star. She's always been a terrific actress (in this case, "always" means "since 2010 when she burst on to the movie scene") but in interviews leading up to the first film, you got the sense that she wasn't all that comfortable in this setting and I think that came through the screen at times. Now, however, Lawrence is fully embracing both the character and the direction her career is taking and this makes her performance all the more invigorating. It isn't just Lawrence who seems more comfortable in her skin. Hutcherson is legitimately good in Catching Fire (I've always found him to be only average to this point) and the character is much the better for this. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch gets some added meat to his role, Sutherland actually has an opportunity to act rather than simply stalk through scenes menacingly (which, admittedly, he is very good at), and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a perfect addition to this cast. In general, this is a superb cast and each escalates the performance to match the escalating stakes of the film. But make no mistake, this is the Jennifer Lawrence show and she comes through beautifully.
Visually, Catching Fire achieves its goal by both highlighting the stark contrast between the lavish capital and the downtrodden districts and by bringing to life a more elaborate arena than what was at play in Hunger Games. The effects are simple and believably and you never get the eye-stabbing CGI overload that you could very easily expect to get in a movie like this. Francis Lawrence paints a lush picture that only serves to heighten the strength and emotional relevance of the film as a whole. Catching Fire is perhaps the best big budget blockbuster you are likely to see this year and leaves one only wanting more from the sequels yet to come. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some serious violence and general intensity)