Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games had its premiere in London last night, and -- God, we have to make some fire-related pun now, don't we -- to judge from the first round of reviews, it's a hot ticket. (Forgive me, the ghost of Manny Farber.) While there are a few dissenters, reaction so far is overwhelmingly positive, especially for director Francis Lawrence, who will hold the reins for the two-part finale, Mockingjay, as well, and Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen.
Although Den of Geek cites Catching Fire's "Empire Strikes Back vibe" as a negative, most critics seem to agree that with the world-building out of the way, the second film is free to simply inhabit it:
Peter Debruge, Variety:
If Catching Fire were a traditional studio sequel, one could reasonably expect a bigger, bloodier elimination contest to take center stage -- more of the same, presumably amplified by the extra $50 million or so Lionsgate poured into the budget this time around. Instead, this film hews to the model established by the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, where fidelity to the source material takes precedence, allowing this fictional world to grow deeper and more complex with each successive installment.
Jennifer Lawrence, of course, reprises her role as the bow-toting Katniss, which reviewers see more as a continuation of her Oscar-nominated work in last year's Silver Linings Playbook than a cash-grab detour from it.
Robbie Collin, Telegraph:
Lawrence tears through the film like a cannonball. Her Katniss is all surface toughness and subterranean strife, until the second Panem's television cameras start rolling, when she starts ladling on the caramel-gooey charm. You can't help but wonder if, while she filmed her interviews with Stanley Tucci's wonderfully glutinous television compere, Lawrence's mind ever flashed back to her incredibly successful red carpet blitz during last winter's Oscar season – and I don't think I will ever tire of the way Tucci pronounces Katniss's surname, with the third syllable plopping out of his mouth as heavily as a snooker ball.
Todd Gilchrist, The Playlist:
In an industry with no shortage of star wattage, Jennifer Lawrence burns like the sun, and makes stardom look miraculously easy without ever hinting at the possibility she's coasting on charm. Katniss is an extraordinarily conflicted character who wears desperate pragmatism like an armor -- not just against the world, but against her own vulnerability -- and Lawrence breathes a fluid complexity into her decisions that makes her one of the strongest and most relatable female characters in recent memory.
For most, Catching Fire also deals more nimbly with the underlying themes of Susan Collins' trilogy, and not just its obvious critique of violent spectacle and class inequity.
Cath Clarke, Time Out:
Catching Fire looks and feels epic. Hands down it's one of the most entertaining films of the year. But there's also something here-and-now about it – it taps the zeitgeist with its them-and-us society and the feeling that when money is in the hands of so few, the odds are never in our favour.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap:
There are any number of readings available here, from Katniss and Peeta's relationship mirroring generations of Hollywood stars (closeted and otherwise) with fake publicity marriages, to the oppression of the working classes by the greedy 1%, to the vagaries and dangers of instant fame, to bread and circuses, and Catching Fire allows viewers to dig into or avoid the metaphors as much as they want.
The most consistent complaint is that Catching Fire feels too much like a sequel, with diminishing returns setting once the combatants return, inevitably, to the arena.
Paul MacInnes, The Guardian:
What lets the movie down is its heart, or lack thereof. The reprise of the Games introduces new adversaries (and some allies) but has exactly the same dynamic as in the first movie; Katniss must keep both herself and the ever-so bumbling Peeta alive. It's all a bit familiar. There's also a figurative heartlessness about this passage, too. While a fair portion of the original was spent setting up the moral difficulties of competing in a winner-takes-all bloodbath, as the bodycount here grows, the minds of the participants are only on tactics.
Geoffrey MacNab, The Independent:
Strangely, when the long awaited Hunger Games start, the film loses steam. There are still some tremendous special effects – toxic mist, mutant monkeys with a taste for flesh – but the storytelling becomes muddled. Katniss remains at the heart of the action, using her bow and arrow to explosive effect, even as we struggle to work out who survived, who is dead, who is killing who, what is happening – and why. (All will doubtless become clear in the next film.)
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily:
But as with The Hunger Games, Catching Fire lacks much of a moral thrust regarding the striking scenario it depicts. Katniss detests what she did to stay alive, but this new movie is nonetheless built around the suspense of whether she can survive once again -- this time against more skilled competition. There's a grim fascination throughout Catching Fire due to the emotionally charged storyline, but because the plot very much echoes the first film's, weary familiarity blunts the life-or-death urgency.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:
Rather paradoxically, it's here that Catching Fire falls a bit short of its predecessor in an almost subliminal way. In the first installment, wary young warriors were forced to live by their wits and hunt one another in repeated do-or-die, mano a mano situations. Here, the unenthusiastic veterans are subjected to manufactured hazards -- invisible force fields, a rolling fog of poison gas, enraged fanged monkeys, attack birds, a spinning rock island to which some have retreated -- that have the cumulative feel of a designed theme park attraction rather than a confrontation with nature.
But overall, the reviews class Catching Fire as one of the best recent franchise adaptations, making it sound like the odds are very much in the movie's favor. (Dear God, I did it again. Where's my copy of From Caligiari to Hitler?)
Drew McWeeny, HitFix:
Heroism is easy when you're the magical Chosen One or when you've got clearly marked Good Guys and Bad Guys or when you have a quest that has a distinct cause and effect to it. Find the magic sword, kill the bad guy, free the kingdom. That's simple. Katniss is a hero simply because she cannot be anyone other than who she is, and faced with being ground down by a broken system, she simply refuses to let it happen. That strength is what defines her, and everything in the film is about how she navigates her way through a world with no easy choices.
Catching Fire opens November 21.