The latest Hunger Games installment, Catching Fire, has all the elements of a cheesy teenage fantasy flick: it boasts an edgy protagonist, a messy love triangle, and an avalanche of complicating forces that disrupt the characters’ otherwise uninteresting lives.
But the second chapter of the Suzanne Collins saga, which opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, stands apart from your typical Twilight-esk feature film. It also outshines the trilogy’s first installment.
For starters, Catching Fire upgraded directorially to Francis Lawrence, after severing ties with 2012 Hunger Games director Gary Ross. The shortlist of Lawrence’s attributes to the film includes a refreshing commitment to Collins’ original text, more settled inter-character relationships, and, above all, an emotional atmosphere that aptly aligns with the execrable nature of the film: one where children are forced to kill other children.
The 146 minute movie opens with Katniss, played by America’s sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence, back at home in District 12, haunted by the experience of her first Hunger Games and trying to make amends with a former flame, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Soon, she is whisked away on a Victory Tour with her co-winner and on-again-off-again lover, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), only to find other demons jumping out from Panem’s dusty closets— survivor’s guilt, for example, and the overwhelming responsibility of becoming an icon of hope for revolution. Lawrence falls easily back into her role as heroine, but displays a maturity and steely determinism that were lacking in the first film.
The movie’s twist arrives when President Snow announces the next batch of Hunger Games tributes are to be selected from the pool of former Games winners. Naturally, both Katniss and Peeta end up back in the arena for Round Two. It also means that on-screen favorites such as the gold eye-liner-wearing stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and the campy broadcast emcee Caesar (Stanley Tucci) return for encore performances.
Despite some confusion as to who, really, is an ally to Katniss, and the omission of any kind of plot setup—if you haven’t read the book or seen the first film, you’ll likely be lost—Catching Fire is a thrilling and emotional tale of survival, rebellion, and young love. Undoubtedly, it will set box offices ablaze.