The Hunger Games: Catching Fire won’t open in the U.S. until Nov. 22, but the sequel to last year’s box-office smash had its world premiere in London on Monday night. “Everything is much bigger,” Jennifer Lawrence said on the red carpet. “Everything is intensified. … The stakes are much higher.”
The early reviews seemed to agree with Lawrence, for better and worse — but mostly for the better. “Catching Fire is leaner, gutsier and smarter,” wrote Time Out London. “In hand-to-hand combat, it would have the first film on the floor, trapped in a headlock, whimpering for mercy. Over two-and-a-half heart-pounding hours, it doesn’t drag for a second.”
The Hollywood Reporter thinks fans of the books and the first film will consume the sequel, which was directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) after Gary Ross left the franchise: “The new film boasts a noticeably spiffier, more confident feel than the first, even as the overriding impression is one of methodical responsibility to the source material.”
Variety was equally impressed by the film’s focus, especially in how it allowed the audience to tap deeper into the books’ storytelling voice: “With its pseudo-war-photography shooting style, the first film played jittery tag-along witness to Katniss’ ordeal. By taming the camera and focusing on the emotional truth of each highly charged moment, Lawrence and d.p. Jo Willems (Limitless) invite us into Katniss’ head, which is where the first-person books unfolded.”
Many critics mentioned that the Quarter Quell action doesn’t kick in until the 80-minute mark, but no one seemed to be complaining about length or pacing. “At 146 minutes (which fly by), the movie has no dead spaces,” wrote The Wrap. “Catching Fire serves up food for thought and jolts of adrenaline in equal doses, which is more than most YA adaptations have managed to deliver. Dismiss it as a popcorn movie if you must, but at least they’ve bothered to serve it with real butter and truffle salt.”
The London Guardian, however, couldn’t get past the feeling that Catching Fire suffered from the common sophomore burden of merely being a narrative bridge, a necessary but inferior space-filler between the original movie and the more compelling Mockingjay movies to come: “A rousing climax … sets up part 3 (or to be technically accurate, part 3a). Yet there’s never quite the sense of satisfaction that the first film provided. You can feel the franchise dynamic chugging beneath, with the result that Catching Fire is not quite a full course, more of an amuse bouche, making its mammoth audience hungry for future, meatier installments.”
Screen Daily felt the same way about Catching Fire as a table-setter, but more strongly since it panned the sequel as “glumly mediocre.” “Catching Fire is only sporadically combustible — a ho-hum sequel that mostly sets the stage for hopefully more scintillating future chapters.”
But the nays were certainly drowned out by the yays. On Rotten Tomatoes, the odds were definitely in Catching Fire‘s favor, with a solid 92 percent score.