The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ★★★★½

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is one of the good sequels. Even better than good, in fact. The movie does what a sequel should do—build upon its predecessor, add more depth to the protagonists, and up the ante—and does it well.

Following the events of "The Hunger Games" (2012), President Snow (Donald Sutherland) personally instructs Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) to convince the people of Panem and, more importantly, him that the only reason she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) did what they did to win the 74th Hunger Games together was out of love for each other. Snow is rightly worried that the couple’s victory will be seen as an act of defiance against the Capitol, inspiring people to rebel against the powers that be. Katniss and Peeta do their best to act deeply in love in public, much to the chagrin of Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’s best friend, who is in love with Katniss. Snow, however, is not convinced, so he and the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), come up with a plan to force Katniss to once again participate in the Hunger Games.

Compared to the first installment, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is darker in tone. The political and societal themes of the narrative become more pronounced as the focus slowly but surely shifts from the Hunger Games as such to the growing resistance in the twelve districts against the Capitol.

As the stakes become higher, loyalties change. The most significant character development in that regard takes place in Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who is a lot more sympathetic here; a true friend from the Capitol.

The arena of the 75th Hunger Games is an impressive and cleverly designed one, more dangerous and more difficult to compete in than the arena featured in the previous movie, as befits a Quarter Quell edition of the Games (held every 25 years). As a viewer, one can almost feel the high humidity in the densely forested arena.

With this edition of the Hunger Games being a Quarter Quell, the threats to the tributes are even deadlier. There’s a suspenseful and thrilling sequence involving poisonous fog, for example, and it is followed by an intense attack by monkeys on the protagonists. At the other end of the spectrum is a wonderfully awkward moment set in an elevator.

Director Francis Lawrence, taking over the reins from Gary Ross, does a commendable and confidence-instilling job. Working from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, he delivers a terrific and terrifically engaging film that raises the bar for young-adult, science-fiction adventure movies.

The production value remains high in this installment, largely thanks to the excellent production design by Philip Messina and Trish Summerville’s extravagant costumes, as well as to the solid special and visual effects. Furthermore, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is a well-paced movie, with Alan Edward Bell’s work in the editing room making the proceedings’ 146 minutes go by without a dull moment.

The film can be criticized for being a partial rehash of the first movie in the franchise, with Katniss and Peeta having to participate in the Hunger Games again, but this time the purpose is a different one in terms of the storytelling. The previous entry in the series was about Katniss first volunteering to take Primrose Everdeen’s (Willow Shields) place as tribute in order to save her younger sister’s life and then surviving the Hunger Games. In this film, Katniss’s forced second participation in the Games opens her eyes to the big picture and makes her see President Snow’s regime for what it really is.

Lawrence seems perfectly comfortable in the leading role and has made it her own. Hutcherson does a winning turn as the male protagonist, much less wooden here than in the previous film. A strong addition to the cast, Seymour Hoffman certainly doesn’t disappoint. And Stanley Tucci once again provides the icing on the cake with a gloriously whimsical performance as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman.

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" ends on a cliffhanger. That’s somewhat unsatisfying, of course, but it definitely leaves the viewer excited and looking forward to the third movie in the series.