Review: 'Catching Fire' an upgrade for franchise
This image released by Lionsgate shows Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, left, and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)
A considerable upgrade over the first "Hunger Games" movie, "Catching Fire" comes across more like a remake than a sequel.
In the adaptation of the second installation in Suzanne Collins' young adult trilogy, there's certainly plenty that has changed. Rebellion against the totalitarian rule of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the 12 districts of Panem is growing. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now a beloved hero with the weight of celebrity on her shoulders. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, bless him, has found his way into the proceedings.
Yet the general plot — a journey from Katniss' poor hometown of District 12 to a climactic game of human hunting in "the arena," with high-speed train rides and training sessions in between — is identical to the first "Hunger Games."
More has shuffled behind the camera, and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is much the better for it. Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") has taken over directing from Gary Ross, whose poor handling of the first film didn't stop it from becoming a sensation. Lawrence has given the film (the budget was nearly doubled) a more settled environment heavy on greys and a more appropriately grave emotional atmosphere. These are kids being forced to kill other kids, the franchise seems to have realized.
This image released by Lionsgate shows Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, from left, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)
"Catching Fire" opens with Katniss back in District 12, haunted by the experiences of her first Hunger Games. There, too, is her flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who's slaving away in the mines. (Hemsworth, a nonentity in both films, makes about as convincing a miner as Ben Stiller's Zoolander did.)
But Katniss' success in the Hunger Games was partly due to her for-publicity-sake romance with her co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, who seems about half the height of the screen-dominating Lawrence). President Snow, aware of the put-on, insists they keep up the charade to help pacify the uprising.
There's an ironic satire of modern celebrity somewhere in "Catching Fire." Katniss has become famous only to find it a trap. As her Hunger Games coach Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) says, "You never get off this train."
Lawrence isn't so different. "The Hunger Games," along with her more interesting work in "Winter's Bone" and "Silver Linings Playbook," has made her an enormous star. She is quite literally "the girl on fire," as Katniss is nicknamed.