Brutal sequel a vibrant victory

3SR: Panem’s reluctant firebrand returns, bringing the revolution with her in this infinitely more vibrant and successful addition to the Hunger Games franchise.

Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks.

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Written by Michael Arndt, Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins.

Action, adventure, science fiction, thriller. 2hr 26mins. M for violence.

★★★★ 1/2 stars

The Girl On Fire burns brighter than ever in the second installment of sci-fi dystopia, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with a follow up film that exceeds  its predecessor in every way.

A change in director has brought The Hunger Games franchise (Catching Fire is the second in a promised block of four films) maturity and depth better suited to telling such a dark story.

Not that the first film wasn’t dark, it’s just that I Am Legend and Constantine director Francis Lawrence has a breadth of vision for writer Suzanne Collins’ dystopian world that verges on the epic.

Dispensing with the shaky camera work –  passing for “gritty realism” in the first film – and messy pacing, Lawrence opts for long, lush cinematic shots, triumphant use of good CGI and a sharp focus on relationships that lifts Catching Fire into the realms of great sci-fi.

We return to Panem as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are about embark on a victory tour of the districts.

Paraded through the countryside as symbols of the Capitol’s cruel “benevolence”, they discover their act of defiance during the last games has set a spark under the downtrodden people of Panem.

When the embers of dissent threaten to become full blown fiery revolution, Katniss and Peeta are forced into another bloody battle to celebrate the “Quarter Quell” – a kind of Hunger Games All Stars edition.

Facing vicious mind games, combatant’s reaped from previous games’ victors – a mixed bag of geniuses, emotional wrecks and trained killers – and a much more deadly arena, it becomes clear President Snow (Donald Sutherland) will stop at nothing to destroy the symbol of hope Katniss has become.

Understanding that the battlefield of Catching Fire won’t just be strewn with bodies, but hearts and minds too, director Lawrence gets out of the way and gives the characters ample breathing space to carry the weightier story.

Star Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) shows she’s more than capable of the bigger workload too.

She effortlessly blends the vulnerability and strength we fell in love with in The Hunger Games to create a compelling and luminous hero.  A stark contrast to the pitch black machinations of Snow and Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (new addition Philip Seymour Hoffman). And they are really black this time.

“You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Everdeen, but they were games,” Snow says, upping the stakes for this film and the ones to follow infinitely.

“Would you like to be in a real war? Imagine thousands of your people dead. Your loved ones gone.”

It’s these significantly raised stakes that really set the film apart from its predecessor and open the franchise to all kinds of possibilities beyond the Hunger Games arena.

More than that, the script is wonderfully subversive and political for a film aimed at teens, mixing up the gutsy action and relentless pace (it fairly smokes through its two and half hour running time) with a kind of cold satire that points a strident finger at aspects of our own lives.

Themes of entertainment as oppression and the elite, effete few living off the deprivation of the many are particularly barbed.

Heavensbee’s scheme for undermining Katniss is a cynical mash of extreme violence and celebrity nonsense; the Capitol looks less like a gaudy-but-fun World of Wearable Arts show we saw in Hunger Games and more like the last days of Rome, the gratuitous over consumption of it’s citizens as grotesque and ostentatious as their gravity defying hair-dos.

That attention to detail and respect for the story and audience makes for a bold and affecting film, as politically subtle as an arrow in the neck, but infinitely more enjoyable. Long live the revolution.


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