Not since 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back" has the middle chapter in a cinematic series eclipsed the dramatic scope and technical quality of its original while leaving us breathlessly dangling from a closing narrative cliff the way "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" does.
Gary Ross' 2012 "The Hunger Games," the first dramatic translation of Suzanne Collins' young-adult book series, came to the screen hobbled by a strained budget (hence, some chintzy visual effects) and tentative direction salvaged by strong, memorable characters and a smart, politically charged plot set in a futuristic plutocracy.
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"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Other: A Lionsgate Films release. Rated PG-13 for violence, language. 146 minutes
Lionsgate Films wisely pumped an extra $78 million into "Catching Fire" (budgeted at about $130 million), so its sets. costumes and effects carry quality cache.
Moreover, Ross has been replaced by director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence), who knows when to let the action simmer and when to push it to a full boil.
For an action movie, "Catching Fire" (photographed in telling detail by Jo Willems) relies on an abundance of tight shots of faces, revealing that the filmmakers understand their story not to be a routine sci-fi thriller, but a personal human drama set against the backdrop of a morally perverse universe built around devaluing humanity for entertainment and diversion.
The police state run by iron-willed President Snow (Donald Sutherland) always lurked in the background during "The Hunger Games." Now it takes center stage as white-armored enforcers resembling Darth Vader's stormtroopers freely execute dissidents in public view, firebomb a district out of existence and whisk away protesters.
Amid increasing poverty and civil unrest, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) appear to be living on Easy Street in posh little homes across the street from each other. As game "winners," they get to live out their days in relative prosperity.
But President Snow, fearful that Katniss' defiance and popularity threaten his grip on the 13 districts (Oh, wait, District 13 has been obliterated. Make it 12. Oops. Another one disappeared. Dang, it's hard to keep up), changes the rules for the 75th Hunger Games.
Now, past winners will compete once more in a life-or-death struggle. Whaaaat?
In this movie -- faithfully adapted from the novel -- the actual games don't get under way until halfway through the running time.
When the games finally begin, all sorts of nefarious mischief awaits, because new game master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has anticipated the more experienced contestants will now not be so quick to kill their own ranks.
So he devises new obstacles for entertainment: advancing poison smog (from Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast?), killer bird flocks (from Hitchcock's "The Birds"?) and killer baboons (from "The Shadow of Kilimanjaro"?).
These fights against manufactured elements don't pack the punch or gripping horror of the more personal combat in "Hunger Games," but "Catching Fire" still comes out the better movie because of its emphasis on relationships, trust-building and lessons in working together to stay alive.
Katniss continues to have conflicted feelings for her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, Chris's bro), her teammate Peeta who worships her from not-so-afar, and her increasingly alcoholic manager Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).
Of the new game contenders, Jena Malone goes utterly incandescent as a wiry winner with as much anti-government attitude as kill skills. Sam Claflin sparks up the cast as Finnick, a charismatically cool cookie of a killer who won the games at 14. Jeffrey Wright's winner (electrocution is his thing) adds a touch of nerdy strangeness.
Stanley Tucci returns as the country's consummate Hunger Games TV host with glittering teeth whiter than a Ku Klux Klan convention. Elizabeth Banks nails the transformation of Effie from a prissy government image consultant into a genuine human being whose support of Snow turns out to be as fake as her eyebrows.
If there's any doubt that "Catching Fire" belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, now in full command of this wonderfully wrought, reluctant Amazonian warrior, pay particular attention to the film's final image, a searing portrait of a reborn Katniss, her face flushed with rage and frightfully quiet determination.
Hers is the face of the human spirit.
Strong. Resilient. Unconquerable.
And I can't wait to see what she does in Francis Lawrence's upcoming "Mockingjay, Part 1."