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‘Catching Fire’ builds on ‘The Hunger Games’

Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 23:12

Although it follows similar plot developments, “Catching Fire” is a faithful adaptation that miraculously never feels like a retread of “The Hunger Games.”

Despite its lengthy runtime, the film’s fire never once burns out.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) embark on the Victory Tour after winning the 74th Hunger Games.

Their defiant actions in the games have inadvertently inspired a rebellion among many citizens of the 12 Districts of Panem, and the oppressive Capitol government is executing anyone who shows signs of discontent.

In response, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) forces the adored victor Katniss to use her tour to quell interest in an uprising by threatening her family.  
Atypical of most Hollywood blockbusters, “Catching Fire,” actually takes its time getting to the meat of the action. It takes about an hour and a half before anybody steps foot in an arena.

Some may not like the slower pace, but the film wisely uses the buildup to flesh out characters and enrich their complicated feelings and relationships.

Understanding and sympathizing with the characters’ emotions means the stakes feel higher and their actions in battle more impactful.

It also shows us just how much power the Capitol’s malevolent leader, President Snow, has over the citizens of Panem.

Snow’s rule is absolute, and even though Katniss is all that’s standing between the Capitol and a rebellion, his manipulative nature means she’s never truly safe from harm.

We find this out in especially harrowing fashion when Snow exploits a Hunger Games tradition to send Katniss, Peeta and 22 other victors back into the arena in a fight to the death.

Fortunately, even though “Catching Fire” covers a lot of the same ground as “The Hunger Games” it still feels distinct thanks to an inventive new arena, more sources of conflict and a protagonist that’s impossible not to root for.

Current Best Actress Oscar holder Jennifer Lawrence is responsible for making Katniss one of cinema’s greatest heroines. She’s confident, tenacious and compulsively watchable. When she’s in pain, whether physical or emotional, you feel it in your gut.

Josh Hutcherson is a comforting presence as Katniss’s voice of reason and potential love interest. He and Lawrence have an instantly recognizable chemistry.

Their more tender scenes together are genuinely romantic and break up the bleakness and tension that pervades the majority of the movie.

Liam Hemsworth surprises as Gale, Katniss’ lifelong friend that she also has feelings for.

He’s on screen more this time but still far less than much of the rest of the cast, so Hemsworth works hard to make his character stand out.

He comes across as noble and caring, and also pulls off the impossible feat of making the ridiculous nickname “Katnip” sound endearing rather than annoying.

Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz all turn in effective performances as Katniss’ support team, but it is Sutherland who really registers as the man who does whatever he can to tear her down. His Snow has a presence that’s as chilling as his name implies.

The characters are elevated by the production design that surrounds them.

The makeup and costumes in the Capitol are extravagantly over the top and really pop visually.

It’s impressive that the world looks so gaudy and alien, but is depicted in a way that doesn’t undermine the reality of the narrative.

The districts are as cold and spare as the Capitol is lush and alive. The visual contrast alone is enough to convey the injustice of the film’s world.

The real star of the “Catching Fire,” however, is the arena where we witness the playing of the Hunger Games.

The action is relentless and the dome the tributes are trapped in is packed with hidden threats.  
If you’ve not read the book, it’s impossible to predict what will happen next.

The scenes of the games quickly shift from exciting to moving and back again, often in the span of a single scene, and are perfectly accented by the film’s exceptional musical score.

There’s a lot of emotional weight to the film and that helps “Catching Fire” stand apart from your typical blockbuster.

As a fan of the book trilogy, it’s encouraging to see the stories make the leap to the big screen without sanitizing the book’s violence and despair.

Every death is tragic, as it should be.  
The resolution comes a little quick but the cliffhanger ending is surprisingly satisfying.

For me, it was very reminiscent of “The Empire Strikes Back,” in the best possible way.

“Catching Fire” improves upon “The Hunger Games” in every possible way and signals a bright future for the film’s franchise.  
4.5 out of 5

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