Last spring, "The Hunger Games," based on the first book in a series of insanely popular young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, came out and pretty much dominated the pop-culture landscape for months on end. The tale of a futuristic game (wherein participants are chosen at random and forced to compete in a series of tournaments that leaves their fellow participants dead), it was hooky and edgy, the kind of socially conscious science fiction that is all but missing these days.
The film, directed by Gary Ross and starring a then lesser-known Jennifer Lawrence, was also really good. But, of course, things change, and Ross has been swapped for Francis Lawrence, a talented music video and film director who previously helmed "Constantine" and "I Am Legend." For "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," based on Collins's second novel, the stakes are raised considerably and everything seems bigger, more complicated, and on the verge of chaos.
But can it reach the stratospheric heights of the first film, or does it fall in battle? Read on to find out!
1. You Should Probably Re-Watch the First One
Last week, I was feeling like the cock of the walk for watching the original "The Best Man" before seeing "The Best Man Holiday." But when it came to "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," I figured I could go in with only one watch under my belt (a press screening for the first film, that happened in the spring of last year). Well, it turns out, I should have watched it again. The sequel picks up almost directly after the first one ends, as the victors of the first games are set to go on a kind of f'd-up promotional tour. Also, there were little things like the "three" sign that supporters of Katniss give that left me baffled and there were minor characters whose identities I was somewhat confused by; all of these things probably could have been erased by a quick review of the first film.
2. Jennifer Lawrence Is Superb
Last year's "Hunger Games" was where a lot of people got their first look at Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone" was brilliant but toxically under-seen and she is virtually unrecognizable in "X-Men: First Class") and she was totally compelling; a wonderful combination of vulnerability and inner strength. Lawrence was able to handle the weighty thematic issues as deftly as the frantic action sequences. And here she's better. The actress, who now has an Oscar under her belt, goes deeper and darker with her character, racked by the guilt of being one of the only survivors of the 74th Hunger Games but determined to stay alive just a little bit longer. She goes through hell in this movie, and cries on multiple occasions, and you are just with her the entire time. It borders on the miraculous.
3. This One Is Way Better
The first film was pretty exciting but suffered from an excessive amount of clunky science-fiction "world building," occasionally dodgy visual effects, and wonky pacing issues. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is a more streamlined affair; darker and funnier and more socially and politically pointed. At times, the film reminded me of the unimpeachable Paul Verhoeven science-fiction satire trilogy of "RoboCop," "Total Recall," and "Starship Troopers." That is some big praise, indeed. And it would be one thing if the ideas were better but the human drama fell flat; far from it -- emotionally, the film is much more satisfying than the first. All that clunky world building might have paid off, considering how much more invested you are in the characters this time around. Well done, "Hunger Games" franchise architects.
4. This One Is Way Bigger
One of the things that always bugged me about the first movie was that Katniss Everdeen's crummy "district" and the "arena" where they played the actual games looked an awful lot alike. Here, there is way more variety when it comes to settings and the games themselves are a multi-dimensional affair, full of whirring visual effects and action set pieces. (The jungle location is a welcome change of pace from that first movie's one-note American South look.) The scope has widened considerably, which is kind of amazing considering how quickly this thing was put together. The fact that any design work was put into it on such a condensed timetable is sort of mind boggling, quite frankly.
5. There's No Shaky Cam
One of the biggest differences between the first and second movies is the complete abandonment of what is commonly referred to as "shaky cam," the jittery visual style popularized by the two latter "Bourne" movies and all manner of subpar action movie. The first film used shaky cam abundantly, often at the cost of special understanding or geographic clarity (and, one can imagine, as a way of camouflaging the movie's budgetary restraints). In "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," it's almost all smooth-as-silk Steadicam (I think I counted two handheld shots and neither were particularly jumpy). Director Lawrence stages scenes well, and tells them cleanly and fluidly. It's a beautiful-looking movie and a couple of the shots, like the one that travels with Katniss as she enters the arena, under emotionally harrowing circumstances, will take your breath away.
6. Stanley Tucci Has Purple Eyebrows
Not sure why you need to know this. Carry on.
7. The PG-13 Rating Still Seems Limiting
At this franchise's heart is a story about kids killing other kids (in this movie it's expanded to adults, but I digress). That is an R-rated concept that is forced to play out over PG-13-rated movies. While this entry is somewhat freer to unfold on a PG-13 canvas (and director Lawrence is very deft at covering things up, like the doors that close just as someone is getting brutally executed), you can still see the movie fighting against its family-friendly rating time and time again. There's the violent whipping that we only kind of see and a supposed rain of blood that we don't get to glimpse at all (but it sounds so cool!) Maybe one day, the powers that be will allow R-rated expanded editions of the movie, but if you hold your breath you'd probably end up a dead tribute.
8.Geoffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer Are in It
First off: who knew? Secondly: they play previous victors who used their nerdy intelligence to best the brutes they were up against. They are oddly affecting, as well, and steal very nearly every scene they're in. The less we say the better. But he was giving off a Christopher Lloyd-in-"Back to the Future" vibe, which is always good.
9. The Soundtrack Rules, But None of It's in the Movie
Anyone who picked up the soundtrack to "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" knows that it is pretty awesome, with new songs from The Weeknd, The National, and Lorde contributing a predictably gloomy cover of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule the World." Sadly, none of the tracks, not even that awesome Sia song, make it into the actual movie. The Coldplay song plays over the credits, but mostly the movie is scored by James Newton Howard's propulsive music, which really is terrific. Still, it would have been nice to hear Santigold make the post-apocalypse bounce.
10. It Leaves You With an "Empire Strikes Back"-Style Cliffhanger
There are a number of huge reveals in the final moments of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," none of which I'm going to reveal here (I don't care if you've already read the book). This results in an ending that might be the biggest cliffhanger since "The Empire Strikes Back," or maybe "Kill Bill, Vol. 1." Either way, it will make you clamor (angrily) for the next movie. Considering most of the creative team from this movie (including the two Lawrences) will be back, it's hard not to be pumped.