Full disclosure: When it comes to movies like The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire — movies with which I love the source material and the leading lady, and which I am unabashedly excited for — I am personally vehemently against going into the theater with too many pre-set expectations as to what the film s going to do, how, and how well. Which is why I surprised myself a little bit when I pitched a Catching Fire review round-up to my editor.
My reasoning, though, is that a simple glance at my facebook, twitter, and tumblr feeds/dashboard/etc. are making it glaringly obvious that I won't be able to avoid other people's opinions of Catching Fire leaking in and affecting my own. From my friends who are seeing the movie earlier than me to all the different media outlets already posting their reviews, there's no way of avoiding headlines ranging from (to paraphrase) "Catching Fire was just meh" to "Catching Fire was the best ever let's start a revolution."
The peeving thing — to me — when it comes to these reviews, and the reason my instinct is to avoid them, is that most of the time I don't know the place through which these people are approaching this movie.
Let's face it: There are some friends of mine whom I love and respect but whose opinions of Catching Fire I will actively not allow to affect my own simply because I know that we tend to approach these things from different sides of the same table. The same is true in my relationship with professional film reviews — it's not about spoilers, there are just too many factors that will determine my personal enjoyment of this film for me to let reading one review of Catching Fire poison my relationship to it, either by elevating or lowering my expectations beforehand.
Which brings us to the actual reviews. Because if we can't avoid them (and we can't) why not round up some of the disappointment and the praise, and thus give ourselves the best possible chance of evening out our pre-film judgements before we actually sit our butts in that theater?
Being the middle child is a bitch. Same goes for books and movies. By that standard, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – the second film culled from Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy – should be a placeholder, stuck between the older kid who gets all the glory and the baby who gets all the love. Not this time. Catching Fire, which builds on the box-office and critical success of last year's Hunger Games, is spectacular in every sense of the word. For extra pow, see it in IMAX. It's also darker, deeper and more dangerously subversive. Does that mean you have to chill until the movie hits the arena and the action sweet spot? Yeah. Go with it. [...] In the film's first scene, the camera finds Katniss not in the arena with her face marred by sweat and blood, but alone and lost in thought. How's that for daring greatly, especially in a blockbuster franchise?
If the first film was a carefully executed buffet of complex, unexpected, and interesting pairings, this new sequel is something much simpler: a standard Hollywood popcorn flick. That’s not meant to extinguish any of the heat Catching Fire delivers. The film crackles with improved action set pieces and delivers the smoldering love triangle that earned the series its “next Twilight” branding. And popcorn, as it happens, is very good. Who doesn’t like popcorn, particularly when it’s popping on the heat of Jennifer Lawrence’s incendiary Catching Fire performance? But who, also, doesn’t get more excited when they see something a little more unusual and surprising on the menu at the snack bar?
As faithful as Argos or Old Yeller, Snowy or Hachiko, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire runs no risk of disappointing its absolutely ravenous target audience. Serving up everything from Suzanne Collins' eventful second installment in her trilogy about teenage warrior and rebel Katniss Everdeen that fans could possibly want to see, this is a safe, serviceable, carefully crafted action drama in which the subversive seeds planted in the first story take welcome root. As before, Jennifer Lawrence is the superb center of it all and the massive success of this Lionsgate release is as certain as the turning of the Earth.
Screen International's Tim Grierson
A ho-hum sequel that mostly sets the stage for hopefully more scintillating future chapters. [...] Because the plot very much echoes the first film’s, weary familiarity blunts the life-or-death urgency.
I'm starting to think that the Hunger Games franchise is just not my thing. I liked the first movie fine, but while watching the sequel, Catching Fire, I couldn't shake a sense that I'd seen most of this before. Jennifer Lawrence might be even better this time around, but even then, I don't think that's enough. Let's hope the future films are better.
The Hunger Games featured kids killing kids for sport. Its sequel, the far superior The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, rewrites the rules, which not only makes for a more exciting death match, but also yields a rich sociopolitical critique in the process, in keeping with the incendiary subtext of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel. Though technically just the bridge between the lower-budget original and the two-part finale still to come, in director Francis Lawrence’s steady hands (gone are the previous film’s needlessly spastic camera moves), Catching Fire makes for rousing entertainment in its own right, leaving fans riled and ready to storm the castle.
When the closing credits rolled after the original ‘The Hunger Games,’ I thought to myself “eh, not bad.” But I was in no rush to see the follow-up. When the closing credits rolled after Francis Lawrence’s [Catching Fire], after I was able to collect myself, I was fully prepared to run out and get a mockingjay tattoo. Over my heart. With the phrase, “I will lay down my life for you, Katniss Everdeen, because you are the first and finest true hero of 21st century cinema.”
Okay, that may be getting a little carried away (and by the time I exited the theater I had calmed down a bit) but let’s just say now I get it. I see why people are bananas for this franchise. It is, without question, working on a higher level than the typical “young adult” properties out there. I can’t speak about Suzanne Collins’ prose, but the themes she’s working with are mature and the ways in which she teases out the plot is both thought-provoking and highly entertaining. And in the films – particularly this film – there’s the outstanding X-factor of Jennifer Lawrence elevating the material.
The biggest common denominator in all of these seems to be "Isn't Jennifer Lawrence just the best ever?" Which, let's face it, is fair.
So our advice to all who go see Catching Fire is to enter into that theater not with any preordained ideas of what you'll like or not like — except for Jennifer Lawrence. You're obviously going to like Jennifer Lawrence.