Empire Strikes Back or The Matrix Reloaded? The Dark Knight or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest? Often, the follow-up to a sure-thing franchise starter, freed of the demands of table-setting exposition, delivers a deeper, more character-driven story. Other times, the sequel is a double-down rehash that makes you second-guess what you liked about the original in the first place. And occasionally, the second film is a space-holder, a bridge from the movie that first introduced the characters to the third (and fourth) chapter that will ultimately determine their fate.
With Catching Fire, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, critics seem to be leaning towards a combination of 1 and 3. It’s a more-confident, more-polished movie that delves deeper into Panem’s political conflict. But it’s also more a prequel to the first of two Mockingjay movies than a sequel. There’s a bigger universe to explore and Catching Fire is necessary to get us there.
Jennifer Lawrence is back as Katniss, who’s struggling with post-traumatic stress after out-shooting and out-thinking the competition in the Hunger Games, allowing her and her for-show boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to survive as co-winners. She’s thrown back into the Hunger Games arena to battle a collection of all-star killers when President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing rebellion in the oppressed districts, correctly sees her as a threatening symbol of defiance.
The rest of the Katniss entourage is back as well, with Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, and Stanley Tucci reprising their roles under the direction of Francis Lawrence, who takes the reins from Gary Ross. Joining the team are Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the Capitol’s clever new Gamemaker, and Sam Claflin, as a beefcake gladiator who’s equal parts lover and fighter.
But it’s Jennifer Lawrence, who some moviegoers did not even know pre-Hunger Games, that makes Catching Fire more than just the latest big YA box-office spectacle. The 23-year-old actress has won an Oscar since she last visited Panem, and critics are impressed that she commits to Katniss just as much as she would a complex David O. Russell character. “She more than holds her own, turning her face into a dreamy-pale Valkyrie mask,” writes EW’s Owen Gleiberman. “You react to every wave of sadness and fury roiling around inside Katniss, even when Katniss isn’t allowed to show it.”
A movie like Catching Fire doesn’t need the critics to give it their stamp of approval to win the weekend, but click below to see what they are saying about the sequel before you purchase your tickets. READ FULL STORY