The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

does the second movie outshine the first?

by liza darwin

It's only been a little over a year since Katniss and Peeta fought for their lives in the first Hunger Games movie, but a lot has changed since then. For one thing, the second installment of the Suzanne Collins trilogy has a new director (Francis Lawrence replaced Gary Ross), a new costume designer (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo''s Trish Sommerville), and almost twice the production budget. Go big or go home, right?

The original cast--Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci and more--remains, along with newcomers like Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman, so it should go without saying that the sequel brings a whole different kind of drama. But fortunately, it somehow manages to stay true to the story and remain simultaneously shiny, raw, and totally gripping. 

If you're unfamiliar, here's the brief backstory about what's going on. Once Katniss and Peeta have won The Hunger Games, they're faced with a new set of challenges, owning up to the guilt of being the last ones standing and also pretending to be madly in love. President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) is onto their scheme, and fears a rebellion rising up within the Districts. His solution? Plan a Quarter Quell, a special anniversary game that brings past tributes back into the arena in order to battle to the death. The Capitol wants to keep Katniss's power under control, and this seems like the easiest way to do it...or so Snow thinks. 

While much of the action of the film takes place in this elaborate island ring, the crazy part is, the actual fighting doesn't even happen until more than halfway through the movie. Much of the beginning is focused on the emotional backbone of the film--like Katniss dealing with her new role as an icon and the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Considering the first movie skimped a little on the character development, the choice to go back into Katniss's private life only makes you that much more invested in what happens later on. 

Catching Fire ups the ante in almost every way possible. There's more violence, more elaborate costumes and makeup, and much better special effects, especially in the island arena scenes. Oh, and more romance.

The flick clocks in at just under three hours, which is long (really long!) but it rarely drags. Our one suggestion? Brush up on the first story before you see the second, because there's barely any recap whatsoever. Plus, don't go expecting any sort of closure--the ending is totally abrupt, just like it is in the books. The only good news is, that just makes us even more excited for the next Games...so let that countdown begin, like, now.

The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire opens in theaters today.