An on fire sequel
As the title “tribute” is used with such frequency in the “Hunger Games” world, here’s one: “Catching Fire” is the “The Empire Strikes Back” installment of the “Hunger Games” franchise.
No, that’s not the heretical statement you might think. It is just an accurate way to describe how fans of Suzanne Collins’ novels and now the film adaptations might feel – in many ways similar to fans of the middle installment of George Lucas’s iconic film felt walking out of a theater in 1980.
“Catching Fire” is more amped up than its predecessor in nearly every aspect (except, perhaps, in actual on screen violence). This is particularly true for the various emotional levels of what is at stake, with a twisty, abrupt ending sure to thrill fans – even those who know what to expect. While it may not eclipse it’s predecessor in originality, a larger budget and different director (Francis Lawrence of “I Am Legend”) prove a superb combination and bring a heightened intensity and allow for more lavish production details to propel “Catching Fire” well past a case of “sequel-itis.” They make the film required viewing for both fans and non-fans alike. (If you haven’t seen the first film, drop a buck at a “Red Box,” for goodness sake.)
The story continues with Katniss Everdeen (the ever-impressive Jennifer Lawrence) returning home to District 12 after surviving the 74th annual Hunger Games, along with pal and potential romantic beau Peeta Mellark (a sweetly sturdy Josh Hutcherson). But all is not well in Panem, the apocalyptic North America governed from the Capitol by the tyrannical President Snow, played by the chilling-as-ever Donald Sutherland.
So to thwart any rebellion, Snow and his slippery Games director (a perfect Philip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new competition, “The Quarter Quell,” that pits all of the previous victorious tributes against each other in a duel, of course, to the death.
The political subtext is handled deftly by a team of writers that includes Collins, Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy. They show respect for the audience by creating thought-provoking undertones without forgetting the film is first and foremost and action adventure spectacle. Indeed, the set-up to the exhilarating tournament is nearly as involving as the event itself.
All of the secondary actors who are brought back demonstrate a continued arc to their characters, especially Elizabeth Banks as the flamboyant chaperone Effie Trinket and Woody Harrelson as boozy mentor Haymitch Abernathy. Jenna Malone is a wondrous, wild nugget as fellow tribute Johanna Mason.
The final few minutes are gasp-inducing and justify the eminent third installment’s can’t-release-it-soon enough fervor.
Even in a cinematic world of constant sequels and blockbuster franchises, that kind of universal anticipation is rare. Aside from a certain group of films set in Middle-Earth, one has to go back to a beloved galaxy long, ago and far away to find films that have the power to prove so original and entertaining (and that don’t involve superheroes).
So while “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” may not be as pioneering as some of its iconic predecessors, the odds are in its favor that it will be as memorable.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, and suggestive situation and language.