By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood November 12, 2013 at 11:35AM
First reviews have arrived for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," and the general critical consensus is that the second installment in the franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence as archer Katniss Everdeen and directed by Francis Lawrence ("Water for Elephants"), is a strong improvement on the first film. Variety calls it "rousing entertainment," while The Wrap says viewers will "come away satisfied."
And for those of you who suffer from motion sickness, you'll be relieved to know that the shaky-cam of the first film has been largely done away with.
More middling reviews challenge the general critical sentiment, saying the film's structure and stakes aren't different enough from the first installment to make it stand out (Screen Daily), and that it's "safe and serviceable" (the Hollywood Reporter).
You can decide for yourself when the film hits theaters November 22 (trailer here).
“The Hunger Games” featured kids killing kids for sport. Its sequel, the far superior “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” rewrites the rules, which not only makes for a more exciting death match, but also yields a rich sociopolitical critique in the process, in keeping with the incendiary subtext of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel. Though technically just the bridge between the lower-budget original and the two-part finale still to come, in director Francis Lawrence’s steady hands (gone are the previous film’s needlessly spastic camera moves) “Catching Fire” makes for rousing entertainment in its own right, leaving fans riled and ready to storm the castle.
It takes some guts to make a “Hunger Games” movie and then make the audience wait 80-plus minutes for said competition to get going, but “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” makes that gamble pay off brilliantly.
This second installment of the film series based on the novels by Suzanne Collins hits all the bases for a genre movie — whether you’re there for thrills, romance or even sociopolitical commentary, you’ll come away satisfied.
Catching Fire picks up where the last film left off, both in story and in tone. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), now living in the ‘Victors’ Village’, are still exposed to everyday horror, and casual cruelty, and Francis Lawrence, taking over directing duties from Gary Ross, hammers that home with almost every beat of the film. It’s currently the vogue for insubstantial movies to cover themselves in a patina of grime to suggest depth; Catching Fire does the opposite, using the veneer of luxury to amplify the themes of control, sacrifice, and cruelty.
In spite of the heavy subject matter, the film remains accessible and entertaining. Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy’s script rounds off the rough edges from what is the weakest book in the trilogy to create a movie that forces the audience to engage with the movie’s politics, whilst still finding time to make the romantic subplot and obligatory love triangle work in a way that it never quite did on the page.
A sense of déjà vu hangs heavy over The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It’s not just because this sequel comes only 20 months after the release of the original film, however: It is that this follow-up’s structure and stakes aren’t appreciably different from those in the first run-through. Despite a gripping performance from Jennifer Lawrence as the conflicted, resourceful heroine Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire is only sporadically combustible — a ho-hum sequel that mostly sets the stage for hopefully more scintillating future chapters.
As faithful as Argos or Old Yeller, Snowy or Hachiko, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire runs no risk of disappointing its absolutely ravenous target audience. Serving up everything from Suzanne Collins' eventful second installment in her trilogy about teenage warrior and rebel Katniss Everdeen that fans could possibly want to see, this is a safe, serviceable, carefully crafted action drama in which the subversive seeds planted in the first story take welcome root. As before, Jennifer Lawrence is the superb center of it all and the massive success of this Lionsgate release is as certain as the turning of the Earth.
The biggest change for Catching Fire from last time is the new director, Francis Lawrence. I thought Gary Ross did a very good job on the first film, though I felt he did sometimes go too far with the shaky cam aesthetic, which some outright hated. Well, let’s get it out of the way – the shaky cam is pretty much non-existent in Catching Fire and Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) films the action in a much more steady, traditional manner.
Meanwhile, I was pleased to see Lawrence does a wonderful job of maintaining the tone established by Ross in the first film and expanding upon it.
Whatever lessons Francis Lawrence learned from his work on “Constantine” and “I Am Legend,” much less “Water For Elephants,” the lack of personal imprint in those films serves this 'Catching Fire' well—building his story from Collins’ blueprint with specificity, devotion and care. In fact, he’s almost loyal to a fault, in the sense that as architect of this “middle film” in the saga, he creates a glorious follow-up from its predecessor and a promising lead-in for what follows, without quite enabling it to stand on its own. But as the “Empire Strikes Back” of young adult adaptations, 'Catching Fire' is a monumental achievement, a massively entertaining crowd-pleaser that is thought-provoking and personally inspiring in all of the ways that it aspires to be.