If there's one thing almost all of this year's big movies have in common, it's that they tend to care way more about spectacle than they do character. Whether it's villains who aren't clearly defined (Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World), stone-cold action sequences that wipe out entire cities with little remorse (Man of Steel, Pacific Rim) or regurgitated storylines (Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down), the "blockbusters" of 2013 have been, for the most part, fun, engaging and entertaining, but kinda empty. A lot of skin on those bones, but not much meat. So here comes The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the third "part two" of the month (Thor 2, The Best Man Holiday), and a follow-up to The Hunger Games, which was good, not great. But The Hunger Games coughed up lots of dollars, and along the way Hollywood realized that this was now the young adult (or YA) franchise to beat. They'd need to step up their game for the sequel, but with Twilight and Harry Potter out of the way, the Hunger Games franchise was primed to conquer and ready to lift off. With Catching Fire, it will not only secure its spot at the top of the YA movie-adaptation charts, but it may also go down as one of the best sequels we've seen in a long time.
Running a balsy 146 minutes (can teenagers even go that long without checking their phones?), Catching Fire spreads its mockingjay wings and takes its time, coloring in many of the lines it missed in the first movie. We see more of the 12 Districts, as well as the posh elite living in a Capital that's clearly obsessed with 1980's dress wear. We get to watch Donald Sutherland chew enormous amounts of scenery as the franchise's despicable villain, President Snow. We meet an eclectic group of past Hunger Games winners who are forced to compete once again (the great Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer among them), and get to spend more time watching Stanley Tucci steal every scene he's in as the corny and charismatic Ryan Seacrest-like host of the Hunger Games, Caesar.
It's like an awesome episode of Survivor All-Stars, except the stakes are so much bigger. They're not trying to win money, they're trying to win their freedom. The first installment alluded to an uprising, but this one heads straight to its door and knocks loudly. The entire thing just pops. The characters are more well defined, and the action is better choreographed, but really it's all about Jennifer Lawrence. Now that she's got some more big-screen, big-pressure experience under her belt, the girl absolutely conquers her role with force and conviction. Dare I say this girl is... on fire?
There are a lot of big names and pretty faces in this cast, but Lawrence commands the screen like a general, shifting with ease between beauty, vulnerability, heartbreak and sheer anger. She is this film's everything. Not only is her Katniss on the verge of becoming a revolutionary, but her performance should also help revolutionize the way female characters are treated in big-budget blockbusters. More leaders, less sidekicks. More ass kickers, less love interests. More of everything starring Jennifer Lawrence, please.
Yes, she's that good.
But so is the movie. Catching Fire is this year's best blockbuster because it has characters, not caricatures. It has this tremendous emotional depth to it, and that's something not many franchises even attempt to touch. Where others are giving their all to massive, never-before-attempted action sequences, Catching Fire carefully massages its drama, teasing you with romance, despair, humor and ferociousness, but never giving you too much of one thing. And even though there are plenty of moments from the first film that play out again in the second, Catching Fire makes them feel fresh and adds additional layers to each one so that your experience watching it evolves alongside the characters and their motivations.
When you're watching, you feel like it all means something. Because the first half of the movie is purely driven by its characters, you're fully invested in the non-stop action that dominates the second half. I could tell you more about the plot, but if you read the book you already know what happens. And if you haven't read the book, let the movie surprise you. Even though much of its success can be attributed to its source material, this is a sequel that also learned from its previous mistakes. Gone is the shaky cam that plagued The Hunger Games, and a higher budget means this thing looks pretty damn good. From the gnarly effects inside the arena to the hauntingly beautiful shots high above tree tops, this isn't a movie that simply wants to satisfy its fanbase -- it's a movie that wants to be one of the best you've seen this year, period.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire hits theaters on November 22.
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