I’ve never really understood the Hunger Games franchise. That’s not to say I hate the franchise, I just don’t get it. I’ve read the first book, and it was okay, but not good enough that I was ever tempted to keep reading. The first movie was likewise okay, in my opinion. I don’t remember a thing about it, aside from yet another wonderful Jennifer Lawrence performance, some goofy costumes, and some puke-worthy camerawork.

As such, I was very much looking forward to skipping the sequel, Catching Fire. Even if director Gary Ross wouldn’t be back to shake the camera for two hours’ running time, his replacement (Francis Lawrence of I Am Legend and Constantine) didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Then again, the reviews I’ve read have all been glowing and it’s a slow period for movies right now (what with Thor and this movie dominating pop culture at the moment).

So I went to see Catching Fire. And now I’m tempted to read the book and see if it’s this damn good.

The film had me hooked at roughly the five-minute point, when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) confronts our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). That scene could have and should have fallen flat on the floor, but it was written and performed so well that I was glued to my seat the whole time.

A short while later, Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are taken on a victory tour through all twelve districts. This is done for the purpose of reveling in their prior Hunger Games success while giving eulogies for the lost Tributes from each district. To repeat: Katniss and Peeta have to give eulogies to the people they just killed. Directly addressing the families and friends of the deceased. While the whole world is watching. Holy shit.

Also on the victory tour, a little girl tells Katniss, “Someday, I want to volunteer as Tribute, just like you.” OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!

As these examples will show, the film makes full use of just how dark and twisted this premise is. Decadent parties are being thrown while people starve in the districts, and the film calls attention to that whenever possible. Katniss and Peeta are both standing on the corpses of children, and they feel all manner of guilt for it. Oh, and all my complaints about how the world felt so small in the last film? The sequel rectifies that problem and then some.

Though we don’t actually see much of the other districts aside from #12, the film definitely gives the sense that something big is going on. The government is very effectively established as a totalitarian regime that’s effectively invincible, yet it’s established that strong riots are happening with such frequency that Snow is starting to feel threatened. There’s an all-out war brewing, as Snow is desperate to keep power and everyone else is desperate to survive.

To wit, Snow observes that because he can’t kill Katniss — making her a martyr — then the other Tributes are all basically untouchable. As such, it’s decided that the 75th Hunger Games Tributes should be comprised entirely of surviving champions from the previous games. It’s a transparent ploy that pisses everyone off. The Tributes feel especially betrayed, since they were promised a nice luxurious life of never having to do this again as reward for winning. Those in power aren’t even hiding the fact that they’re making up the rules anymore. It’s gotten to the point where even Effie (Elizabeth Banks) — that shrill and optimistic bimbo cheerleader for the status quo — has to be like “This is so freaking wrong.”

Every move of rebellion and every counter-move of suppression is made to feel larger-than-life under Francis Lawrence’s direction. The stakes feel high, and the scope feels epic. I can also credit the new director for the far superior action sequences. It’s amazing how much better the fight scenes are when we can actually see them. I’d also like to thank the director for toning down the costumes and makeup on the Capitol citizens. Sure, they still look ostentatious, but that’s still an upgrade from “My eyes! My eyes! The goggles, they do nothing!”

(Side note: In the pre-film commercials, I noticed that Cover Girl is using the film as part of an ad campaign. They are seriously addressing everyone out there who wants to look like a citizen of Panem’s capitol. I can only laugh at that.)

Credit is also due to the supporting cast, all of whom keep up the great work. Stanley Tucci is still chewing scenery, Woody Harrelson is still awesome, and Lenny Kravitz is still charming. Some actors (specifically Elizabeth Banks, Paula Malcomson, Liam Hemsworth, and Willow Shields) greatly benefit for having more to work with. Conversely, there’s Toby Jones, whose totally redundant character from the first film is completely removed, aside from a cameo for continuity’s sake.

Mention is also due to some new faces in the supporting cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman brings his unique brand of smarminess to the role, and the whole film benefits for it. Jena Malone turns in a red-hot performance as one of the Tributes, and Jeffrey Wright is a pleasure to see as always. I’m sad to say that Sam Claflin doesn’t fare nearly as well, for all the screen time he was given, but at least he’s putting in a good effort.

As long as I’m talking about the film’s flaws, I have to address the villains. At every step of the way, the franchise makes it very clear that the big bad government isn’t very smart. Hell, the whole premise of the Hunger Games is so full of holes to begin with that it’s hard to believe it’s lasted 75 years. Katniss herself points out that the system must be exceedingly fragile if it can be undone by a handful of poisoned berries. And Snow actually agrees with her. Seriously, it’s a blessing that Snow is performed with all the gravitas of Donald Sutherland, because that’s pretty much the only reason why this antagonist is so compelling to watch.

On the other hand, we have our lead romantic couple. To start with, Peeta seems peculiarly self-aware about his “second fiddle” status. No one takes him seriously, everyone’s talking about how someone has to help keep Peeta alive, all while Peeta himself is like “Hellooo, I’m right here listening.” The film takes steps to imply that Peeta has his own story in the background, making him an ordinary teenager who tragically got dragged in way over his head against his will. You know, like Katniss was.

Moreover, Peeta went to hell and back with Katniss just a short while ago. Though there’s clearly some measure of affection between them, they never really get a chance to establish what it is. Though it’s certainly not the fantastic level of “twoo wuv” that they’ll have to maintain publicly for the rest of their lives through no fault of their own.

The point being that Peeta wound up with a crappy lot in life, and he’s well aware of it. Thus, Josh Hutcherson gets to play the role with an appealing mix of heartbreaking pathos and dry snark.

And what of our lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence? Well, it should come as no surprise that she’s awesome. Seriously, Lawrence is wonderful young talent and she was given so much to work with here. Even without all the post-traumatic guilt that Katniss is going through, she’s still being pressed into a role that she never wanted nor asked for. The people of Panem are calling on her to be a leader and a role model, the government is calling on her to be a tabloid distraction, and all Katniss ever wanted was to live out her days in peace. Katniss is only ever concerned with her own well-being, as well as that of her loved ones, and it’s clear that she’d rather not be part of any political movement if given the chance. Even so, Katniss still has a lot of spite for the Powers That Be, and she makes her displeasure known in some very clever and amusing ways.

With all of that said, the question must be asked: Why oh why did someone decide to Photoshop Lawrence into oblivion for the poster? I mean, good God, you’d think the film was animated or her performance was done in mo-cap, to look at that!

When all is said and done, the best praise I can give to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that I’m left wanting more. I didn’t care what happened after the end of the first story, but I’m itching to find out what happens after the second. Even if the villains are admittedly two-dimensional, this film still did a phenomenal job of establishing the world’s epic scope and the tremendous stakes of the conflict. It also helped that the sequel had far better action sequences, and the moments of subversion were quite funny in places. I’m also glad to see that the actors are all getting better with their roles, and Jennifer Lawrence is still extraordinary to watch.

If you saw the first film (and statistically speaking, you probably did), then you should definitely give this film a watch.

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