The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)

Frequently and impressively surpassing its tepid predecessor’s adaptation-centric conviction, Catching Fire again opens on a particularly grim note for so-named “Girl on Fire” Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as widespread social upheaval sends the Districts of Panem on a death spiral toward imminent and unending turmoil. Forced to perpetuate a preexisting romantic charade if only to protect her loved ones, the impending Third Quarter Quell’s revised rule set throws Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and other district victors unfairly into the mix for the 75th Annual Hunger Games – a move that’s intended to remove the former from the equation if only to reinforce President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) iron grip on his subordinates once more.

While Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of novels can’t technically be termed full-fledged YA material, they certainly fit a similar mold established via now innumerable forays into similar cinematic territory. Benchmarked not so much by key relationships and romances as it is taut and well-implemented world politics, Catching Fire‘s ceaseless first-act intrigue took me completely by surprise. Complimented wonderfully by the assured aesthetic and intended grit present throughout Gary Ross’ initial film, an all-encompassing moodiness corresponding with palpable rising tensions is top notch in relation to similar adaptations.

Upping the stakes considerably given Katniss’ meteoric rise to fame, the film brings a lot more to the table that’s easy to gravitate toward, what with her being the sole reason why Panem’s denizens have chosen to stand up for themselves following nearly seventy-five years worth of human sacrifice. Despite politically-infused thematic familiarity, it’s Collins’ competently translated world-building that offers enough diversity to trump most of these instances, what with compelling central characters and their motives convincingly fueling the fire prior to the actual games themselves.

In fact, I found a majority of the pre-Games exposition to work more to Catching Fire‘s advantage, what with the shaky, nothing’s impossible-type logistics throwing a wrench in the works of an otherwise tangible dystopian vision of a nation’s plight. Caring not for the obvious training sequence retread, the event itself feels rushed albeit a solid enough form of nail-biting, moreover action-oriented suspense. From flesh-eating fog to an implausibly hostile baboon army, it all feels like a cloyingly evocative means of getting a rise out of us prior to this installment’s conclusion. Put plainly, the sequences are necessary, however this iteration of the competition feels halfhearted in the grand scheme of things.

Well-acted, rounded and relentlessly assured in its compelling illustration of the source material, Catching Fire is a superior sequel in nearly every possible way. With higher stakes, perceptibly intelligent conflict and a requisite amount of humanity, Francis Lawrence’s go with this particular franchise is the director’s crowning achievement in an agreeably thin filmography, and given the end result, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Miss Lawrence’s magnetism aside, Catching Fire is – as of right now – the pinnacle of what can be achieved within the realm of continuing literary adaptations, barring certain heavy-hitters of course.

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