Things do not get better for Katniss Everdeen in our second outing into the Hunger Games universe. More starvation, more executions, and, of course, more arena battles. The sociopolitical themes at the heart of the series are more front-and-center than in the first entry, and the result is a much smoother, more engaging sequel that hits it’s mark dead-on. Easily establishing itself as one of the year’s best blockbusters.
When I first started this review I was tempted to put my cynical-shades on and lament the state of current films when The Hunger Games, of all series, manages to put almost every other blockbuster this year so far to shame. But that would be selling this film far too short. No matter it’s young target audience and heavily featured love-triangle subplot, The Hunger Games series has always been a rich and involving story. Some deeply thought-provoking and compelling themes run through the core of these books and films, and it really only took the right director to make all the elements click. As it turns out, Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) was definitely the right man for the job.

Catching Fire picks up a couple months after the first Hunger Games and features a psychologically traumatized Katniss (again played by the spectacular Jennifer Lawrence) trying to cope with the events of the previous film while simultaneously being sucked into a revolution she accidentally started. As the districts of Panem begin to revolt against the totalitarian Capitol, Katniss is unwillingly thrust into a bloody political game where the slightest wrong move could lead to the execution of herself and her family. While the first Hunger Games laid the groundwork for the post-apocalyptic society, Catching Fire builds on that groundwork exponentially. With a significantly increased budget, Francis Lawrence stays entirely true to the world that had been established, but still fills it out considerably. Panem feels like a functioning society, which makes the political chess-match taking place within all the more thrilling.

The weakest element of the first installment was the distinct lack of emotional resonance. There was a distinct emotional remove to the first film, presumably intended to emphasize the dehumanizing brutality of the scenario at hand. Unfortunately, that style doesn’t quite hit it’s mark when the purportedly “savage” violence is entirely diluted by a PG-13 rating, leaving the audience emotionally removed but also thoroughly un-horrified. Catching Fire rectifies this by not only deeply involving itself in the emotions and traumas experienced by these characters, but also reaching back into the first film and delivering emotional payoff for scenes that didn’t quite stick their landing in the last movie. One thing I find about the best sequels is that they not only deliver a great film, but improve the preceding films as well, and Catching Fire manages this beautifully.

Speaking of PG-13 ratings, this time around, director Francis Lawrence isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Catching Fire regularly employs a tactic that the first Hunger Games would have been significantly better off for: imply horrible things instead of showing tame things. Unjust executions and the murder of children can be entirely emotionally provocative without the need of gore, and implying terrible acts of violence can disturb without excessive bloodletting. Catching Fire pushes the limits of it’s PG-13 rating, and when the violence of the scenario exceeds what they are allowed to show onscreen, they simply cut away. The result is powerful and appropriately upsetting in ways rarely seen in a PG-13 picture, joining the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, both series of films that employed their violence strategically and effectively. Graphic violence is often used as a crutch used by film makers to illicit emotion, but it’s a real commendable accomplishment to move your audience without resorting to gratuitous imagery.

With a large portion of the film shot in IMAX, Catching Fire is a cinematic spectacle not to be missed. Thought-provoking and emotionally resonant without sacrificing entertainment factor, it’s the sci-fi epic to beat this year. Even if you found yourself unimpressed with the first outing into Panem, this film has all the elements necessary to bring a Hunger Games skeptic into the fold. With humor, action, romance, and an engaging story, Catching Fire is a crowd-pleasing, well-rounded Hollywood blockbuster the way they used to make ’em, and is bound to delight audiences of all shapes and sizes.

5 out 5 Arnolds

Arnold meter 5

Andrew Allen is a television (and occasionally film) writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check him out on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.