The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Director: Francis Lawrence.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Sam Clafin, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
THE first Hunger Games film was damned with faint praise of the "at least it's better than Twilight" variety.
Some interesting ideas were nestled in its story about a kid-vs-kid battle-to-the-death tournament created as a form of dictatorial subjugation, but it was very predictable while being only mildly enjoyable.
Catching Fire, however, picks up all the potential of its predecessor and runs it in for a triumphant touchdown. It's the obligatory "dark sequel" - the Empire Strikes Back of the series if you will, even ending on a similarly desolate low note - but its a marvellous improvement thanks to an intelligent expansion of its themes, better pacing, and less predictability.
Having stuck it the man (personified by Sutherland's evil president) by refusing to kill each other in the previous Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are now doing the rounds of their dystopian world, being heralded as heroes by the government in the hopes they will placate the increasingly restless and oppressed peoples of the 12 districts.
But Katniss and Peeta's presence seems to be having the opposite effect. Revolution is in the air and the pair are in danger of becoming a symbol of an uprising unless the government does something to stop them.
The big moral issues that intrigued but seemed so black and white in the first film burst into technocolour in Catching Fire. Ideas about loss of humanity, political power, the place of violence in society, and the continuing downward spiral of reality television all return but are fleshed out with a skewering of celebrity culture and the manipulation of the media set against the backdrop of social uprising and the power of symbols.
It may seem overly weighty for a teen-aimed film, but it's a welcome respite from the banal and poorly received attempts at franchise-starting that get regularly wheeled out by studios. If the filmmakers can keep this up in the next two films, it will give the series a resonance and make it a classic for generations to come.
But even with such big ideas, Catching Fire is still dressed up as slick and efficient entertainment. Despite an almost-too-long last act that returns to the games arena and is in danger of going over old ground, the film's pacing is better than the first film, probably because it is less bogged down in setting up the world. The movie dives straight into its dystopia and its increasingly ominous atmosphere and is better for it, although this obviously means seeing the first film before this one is a must.
There is a great cast at work here - including two Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees - but Jennifer Lawrence, such a star in the first film, is again the shining light. Not only is Katniss a refreshingly three-dimensional and strong heroine, but Lawrence's performance hits every note, making her more nuanced than the protagonists of most blockbusters these days. When they make lists of the best movie heroines from now on they should read "1. Ripley, 2. Katniss Everdeen ...".
Hutcherson is also great and given more to do, while Banks gets to show new levels to her fan favourite character Effie Trinket. Sutherland brings the right blend of patriarchal menace, while Harrelson, Hemsworth, Hoffman and Stanley Tucci all bring their A game to small side roles.
As the middle part of a planned four-part saga, Catching Fire is frustratingly incomplete but expectedly so. There are some slightly daft moments, particularly in the fight-to-the-death scenario of the final act where things verge on the silly (although I won't specify for fear of spoilers), and the logic of the world itself probably falls in a whole if you think about it too hard (how are these dirt-poor people in the districts able to watch the Hunger Games when they can barely afford to eat?).
If the series continues in such strong fashion, Catching Fire will be the moment when it started to look the goods. If it can't match this sequel, it will be a benchmark set too high.