Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Written By: Michael Arndt, Simon Beaufoy, Suzanne Collins

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone

I am a big fan of the first Hunger Games, but that movie has a few critical flaws that we need to discuss before we get into the excellent sequel. The first major issue is Jennifer Lawrence. This isn’t to say she’s bad. She’s great, but the first movie is really ride or die on her performance. If you don’t buy her work as Katniss, there’s not much there for you. The second problem is a matter of patience. Specifically, how the movie has none. The camera can’t sit still. It moves around like a go-pro atop a chipmunk that makes weekly stops at the Heisenberg Hideout. The plot rushes along like the arena is Black Friday and everyone needs new toys. It’s just a race to get to the games A lot of the coolest parts of the story are given a cursory treatment so that we can have a nice long time watching Jlaw kick it in a tree.

Part of that has to do with the script, and part of it can be attributed to the direction. In both respects, the second has made a massive improvement. Francis Lawrence lets the camera relax and really display the destitution of the districts and the opulence of The Capital. At the same time, Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy have crafted a script that focuses much more strongly on the society surrounding the Hunger Games than the games themselves. This allows Jennifer Lawrence to be a character in a world, rather than the entire world. It also adds a much greater impact to the game by placing real stakes on the slaughter.

Now we can talk about the plot. It’s structured almost exactly like the first one, with a few minor alterations. Katniss is back in district 12 where she is confronted with her love triangle. On one hand, there’s fiery, hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth) while on the other is the charming sweetheart and Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Neither relationship is perfect. Gale is pretty bummed that his ladylove is famous for her arena romance with Peeta while Peeta’s feeling pretty upset about how said romance was mostly for the fans. It’s all more than a little iffy.

At the same time, there is unrest in the districts. After Katniss and Peeta defied The Capital in the last Hunger Games, the people have been feeling dangerously hopeful about the idea of not being oppressed anymore. In response to this outrage President Show (Donald Sutherland) shows up, IN KATNISS’S HOUSE, to threaten her family and deliver an ultimatum. Show the people that her stunt in the arena last year really was about love, or else I’ll kill everyone you love. That’s the gist of it. How will she show the people? On the Victory Tour of course! Yes, Peeta and Katniss will be touring the nation of Panem saying hello to the families whose children they murdered.

It doesn’t go great. Despite warnings from both Effie (Elizabeth Banks in top form and crazy costumes) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Katniss manages to start a riot in district eleven. In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, an older black man raises a salute and is consequently shot. It becomes clear, really quickly, that Katniss represents a sort of revolutionary spirit.

Something must be done. So President Snow takes the next step. He modifies the rule for the upcoming Hunger Games to draw tributes from the former victors, so Katniss has to compete. This time it’s not against other kids. She’s fighting against seasoned killers. Killers including the lethal (and handsome) Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and the unstable but awesome Johanna Mason (Jena Malone). There’s also a girl with teeth filed into fangs. Aside from the raised stakes of having adults involved, it also allows the movie to show some real violence. It’s a lot better than sorta kinda hinting at it like they did in the first film. The possibility of real violence makes every encounter between tributes feel real and significant.

There are a ton of amazing performances in the supporting cast. Check out all of the parenthetical credits. That’s a crazy list. None of those actors are mailing it in either. None of this Anthony Hopkins in Thor nonsense. As committed and excellent as anyone else in the film is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee (what a name that is). He is the new man in charge when it comes to the games. Heavensbee replaced the former gamesmaster Seneca Crane after last year’s debacle. Hoffman’s character displays the cartoonish malevolence that Snow and the rest of The Capital’s elite attempt to hide beneath their fancy clothes and weird chairs. Heavensbee and Snow form a perfect evil duo, and they play off each other remarkably well. The two are a great counterpoint to the protagonists. All parties involved think they’re doing the right thing, but only a few are correct.

Much like the first film, there’s a long time spent focusing on the media. There are plenty of scenes with Katniss and her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz – still weird), as well as the obligatory talk show moments with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Unlike the first film, we’re given numerous shots of the crowd and the people in The Capital. We’re also given our first look at their culture. There’s a party at President Snow’s house where people are drinking a chemical so they can vomit and then indulge in more and more food. It’s that moment (along with the riot) that gives the movie its weight. Peeta is disgusted. Rightfully so. As he says, “people are starving in twelve.”

Just like the first movie this is a film about inequality and the way that media and entertainment distract us from the material violence of contemporary life. It’s weird that this is a big budget Hollywood movie, but we live in weird times. Times that reflect the status quo that The Hunger Games presents. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire represents those themes more clearly than the first movie ever came close to. Sure, this movie has killing and evil monkeys, and lightning trees, and all sorts of arena based madness, but it’s based around the world surrounding the games. Suddenly this isn’t the story of one young woman’s triumph, but the story of a revolution (or something) that will change an entire world. It’s a movie that asks us all to remember Haymitch’s words and remember who the real enemy is.