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Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), right, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are back in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Photo by Murray Close
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), right, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are back in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Photo by Murray Close
Arts Rancho Santa Fe

Film review: Sequel’s spark ignites new fire in ‘The Hunger Games’ series

Thanks to a compelling performance by Jennifer Lawrence, as well as expertly handled set pieces and character drama, “Catching Fire” is a worthy sequel to “The Hunger Games.” 

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) may have won the 74th Hunger Games, but the Capitol isn’t through with them. Their display of defiance has ignited a spark of revolution among the twelve districts, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) will stop at nothing to crush the people’s hopes for a better future.

As the Capitol tightens its control over the districts, both Katniss and Peeta must survive the Quarter Quell, a more dangerous competition due to its participants being gleaned from a pool of previous winners. Only then can they stand a chance of keeping the brewing rebellion in Panem alive and protecting their loved ones from the wrath of President Snow.

Even with Francis Lawrence replacing Gary Ross as director, I wasn’t too worried about “Catching Fire” not matching the cinematic quality of its predecessor, and I’m happy to say that audiences will find themselves wanting to go back to the Games again. Fans may rest assured that the world they experienced is still the same, only more comprehensive.

This time, we are fully immersed in the twelve districts’ hardships as well as the Capitol’s retaliatory response, and the consequences of Katniss and Peeta’s actions are brought to light before the moviegoers’ eyes. These sociopolitical ideas that “The Hunger Games” touched upon receive an in-depth exploration in “Catching Fire,” and the results are tremendous.

In terms of atmosphere, the story’s mood has escalated to a whole new definition of dangerous. Intrigue and adversity permeate the narrative on every level, and not once did I yawn at the precarious situations that Katniss, Peeta, and their allies found themselves in, both in and out of the arena. With the stakes being higher this time around, the challenges wouldn’t be so exciting if they, too, weren’t elevated.

Now, just so you know, this Quarter Quell takes place in a tropical environment, which has a “Predator” vibe that makes the various threats all the more menacing, be that poisonous gas, vicious monkeys, force fields, or, at one point, a spinning landmass.

Each moment of heart-pounding thrills comes for the characters (and by extension, the audience) fast and hard, and by the time the next one emerges after the first has ended, you can’t wait to see what happens afterwards. And when you have combatants fighting each other not only on land, but also in water, what’s not to like?

Character development has experienced a big boost in the wake of the first film’s success, and for Lawrence’s Katniss, we couldn’t have a better female protagonist (and actress) to anchor this intense science fiction adventure. For those of you who enjoyed her performance as the survivalist archer last year, it gives me great pride to announce she comes into her own here; this girl is on fire 100 percent and never fails to hold the audience’s attention.

As for Josh Hutcherson, he does a wonderful job of capturing Peeta’s compassion and way with words, and his onscreen chemistry with Lawrence has certainly become stronger. Donald Sutherland clearly enjoys seizing the opportunity to highlight President Snow’s willingness to destroy the ideal of hope by any means necessary.

In addition to the welcome return of Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, and Stanley Tucci, leading the assortment of newcomers is the ever-versatile Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose Plutarch Heavensbee is as shrewd as he is methodical during his supervision of the Quarter Quell. Speaking of which, some of the new contestants include Sam Claflin, who achieves the perfect balance of muscle and friendliness in Finnick Odair, and Jena Malone, who infuses the feisty Johanna Mason with a striking outspokenness.

If you had a great time watching “The Hunger Games,” you’ll definitely have a blast when you go to see “Catching Fire.” May the odds be ever in your favor once more!

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
Running time: 2 hours and 26 minutes
Playing: In general release