Sustaining the momentum of an internationally acclaimed franchise after a successful first installation is a difficult task. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins faced this same issue. Although the books may have begun to falter with Catching Fire, the film sequel doesn’t only ride on its predecessor’s global success but earns its own merits with an outstandingly talented cast, riveting special effects and a revitalization of the plot that secures its position in the rare ranks of a movie that’s better than the book.

Catching Fire revisits the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, where District 12 Hunger Games winners Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are departing on their Victory Tours. However, after various districts begin to devolve into riots as a result of Katniss’ actions in the previous games, the malicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) plots to dispose of Katniss without losing control of Panem by pitching her and 23 other Hunger Games victors into another round of the deadly game.

Francis Lawrence, who was the mastermind behind Water for Elephants and I Am Legend, among others, took over as director of this difficult film adaptation. Since both Catching Fire and The Hunger Games primarily take place in an arena, Francis Lawrence and the rest of the production staff were tasked with keeping true to the story without making the arena scenes seem like a rehashing of those in the first movie. And they succeeded. The arena is threaded with fast-paced action, gruesome deaths and calculating improvisations, yet still manages to make clear relationships between characters, especially Katniss and Peeta,  while subtly hinting at secret alliances.

Although considered a popcorn movie, Catching Fire offers more than just pure entertainment. It’s a hypercritical presentation of celebrity culture, a view enforced by the grayscale scenes of the Districts juxtaposed to the almost uncomfortably garish Capitol. President Snow goes to extreme lengths to prevent Panem from realizing that revolts are spreading like wildfire throughout the districts, first by capitalizing upon the frenzy over Katniss and Peeta’s relationship, and then by staging the Victor-only Games.

Overall, what truly solidifies the film as a success is both the talent of the actors and the chemistry between them. Jennifer Lawrence is at her finest, layering Katniss with a tough, rebellious exterior that serves to protect the terrified and haunted girl at her core. Hutchinson exudes a sense of comfort and confidence and keeps his calm, even while being attacked by killer monkeys. The entire cast manages to thread an element of tension into their characters as all of them, from Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to President Snow, realize the world they have known is on the brink of destruction.

The finished product is an impressive feat, championing both its film predecessor and the books that inspired it. Whether going for the entertainment value, Jennifer Lawrence pre-Kate Gosselin haircut or the themes lurking beneath the surface, Catching Fire is the one movie you don’t want to miss, whether you’re a newcomer to the franchise or a seasoned fan.

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