It’s not quite reasonable to describe a movie that made $700 million worldwide and turned its leading lady into one of the planet’s biggest stars as “underrated.” But even so, last year’s adaptation of The Hunger Games, book one in Suzanne Collins’s mega-selling teenage dystopia, reaped more backlash from critics than its pop-blockbuster excellence deserved. The peanut gallery didn’t like director Gary Ross’s handheld camerawork, they thought his PG-13 movie didn’t make the titular games’ teen-on-teen violence sufficiently grisly (because watching kids kill each other isn’t horrifying without gushing arteries, apparently), and without panning the movie outright, they deemed his effort merely . . . satisfactory.
Well, now Ross is gone — thanks for the $700 million, don’t let the studio gate hit you on the way out — and the task of adapting the sequel, Catching Fire, has fallen to Francis Lawrence, a successful music-video director with a few mediocre big-budget movies (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend) on his résumé. I’ve already read more than a few reviewers saying good riddance to Ross and hailing Lawrence’s approach, and so, as an apologist for the first movie, I suppose I should make the opposite case. But even though I really do miss some of that shaky-camera work and think Fire has a little too much bombast and ticky-tack in its set pieces, overall the most striking thing about the two movies is the continuity between them, in form and tone and quality alike. (And in their MPAA ratings: Nobody, but nobody, was going to kill the golden goose of teenage box office by making a Hunger Games movie that’s rated R.)