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Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Willow Shields, Jeffery Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin and Jena Malone.
Writers: Simon Beaufoy and Michael de Bruyn; based on the novel by Suzanne Collins.
Director: Francis Lawrence.

Rating: 3.5/5

It is too soon to suggest that a legacy exists such that director Francis Lawrence’s follow-up to the first instalment of The Hunger Game is as The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars or Return of the King is to Fellowship of the Ring. But the current generation of wide-eyed young fans can argue as passionately as those from decades past that the sequel to their seminal movie-going experience is a marked improvement on the original. And they would be right.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still exhibits many of the problems that detractors claim undermine the concept. Its sacrifice-as-sport/life-as-currency theme is a wildly derivative invocation of well-worn sci-fi tropes; depending on your pedigree, it may appear to be little more than a fresh coat of paint on THX-1138, Logan’s Run, The Running Man, Battle Royale or Turkey Shoot, to name just a few.

And it will still prove an oddity to those of us unfamiliar with the tone or well-established milieu of Suzanne Collins novels. This dystopian future-scape is still peopled by a campy, Fellini-esque population of kitschy pop-culture archetypes familiar to the under 25 demographic raised on cable reality networks: who is Elizabeth Bank’s style queen Effie Trinket if not Tyra Banks; Stanley Tucci’s gaping gameshow host Caesar Flickerman, the future manifestation of Ryan Seacrest; or, Lenny Kravitz’s mascara-wearing fashion guru Cinna a spin on Tim Gunn?

But the film finds much surer footing as a legitimate genre piece in the hands of its new director, who brings fantasy-film cred after the Keanu Reeves vehicle, Constantine, and the best Will Smith movie of the last decade, I Am Legend. Lumbered with an exposition-heavy first half which largely trades on relationships and themes established in the first film, Lawrence stays suitably dark and frosty when home with our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 12. The relationship she shares with her co-victor, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has turned sour; her true love, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) still percolates along.

In the Capital, where the 1% indulge in gaudy parties and wasteful consumption, Emperor Snow (Donald Sutherland) has a new games master in Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom he entrusts to quell the growing sense of rebellion amongst the Districts. This he achieves by implementing a long-hidden rule – every 25 years, a kind of ‘Battle to the Death of the All-Stars’ contest, called ‘The Quarter Quell’, can be held, in which all past victors are recalled. Katniss and Peeta are chosen, along with an eclectic bunch that includes the charismatic Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, channelling a young Michael Biehn) and the tough-girl, Johanna Mason (Jena Malone, in a scene-stealing turn that gives the film most of its personality).

When the games begin, the reasoning behind Lawrence’s appointment over first instalment director Gary Ross becomes apparent. Set within a dense rainforest with a dazzling centrifugal rocky construction from which the tournament launches, Lawrence piles one expertly-staged action setpiece on top of the other with a stylised and involving eye for thrills that Ross never came near to.

It-girl Jennifer Lawrence continues to grow into what will surely be her trademark role with confidence, a bold physicality and, at times, a luminescent beauty. She plays the surly card a bit too often (reminding us all that the target audience is, after all, teenage girls), but in every other respect provides an emotionally honest, solidly moral role model figure.

Like all middle episodes of any franchise, Catching Fire runs the risk of leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of fans when it wraps on a ‘To be continued…’ note. But instead, the franchise takes on an invigorated energy, ending on a series of cliffhanger developments that coalesce with clarity. In this regard alone, The Hunger Games already outshines the last young adult fiction-based film phenomenon (something about vampires, I think) and earns the status of Hollywood’s hottest stand-alone property.  

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