"The Hunger Games" kicked off the series of movies based on the books by Suzanne Collins last year in style. It featured enough high-tension action to eclipse the "Twilight" films and had more magical character development than the "Harry Potter" series, making it a prime contender for the next great film series.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" — the second film in what will be a four-part series — features the same elements. The problem is that it also features a structure that is such a duplication of the first movie that it feels more like a rerun than a chance to move ahead.
"Catching Fire" picks up in the not-so-distant future world where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to their economically devastated district after winning the 74th Hunger Games, a brutal annual event where two teens representing 12 districts wage a battle to the death for the entertainment of the residents of the opulent capital city.
Katniss has become an enemy of the state because of how she circumvented the Hunger Games rules. This act of defiance also has made her a focal point for a growing revolution in the districts. The government believes she needs to die in a way that won't turn her into a full martyr, and that's when the idea of an all-star version of the "Hunger Games" is set up to mark the games' 75th anniversary.
This is where the movie slips back into the structure of the first film. There's the obligatory selection of the contestants, numerous training sessions, cat-and-mouse games between Katniss and the power structure, and the deadly games. Elements of the growing revolution are sprinkled throughout and the angles of the love triangle become a little sharper, but in the end, "Catching Fire" feels way too familiar.
The biggest change is a major negative. Although "Hunger Games" was always intended to be a film series, the first movie had enough of a closed ending that it could have stood on its own. That's far from the case with "Catching Fire." The movie just stops.
If you can get past the structure redundancy and abrupt ending, the sequel features another strong performance by Lawrence. It takes an actor with great talent to make the emotional and physical elements of the movie work equally well, and Lawrence handles both skillfully.
Director Francis Lawrence has matched the visual splendor of the first movie from the landscapes to the costuming. He also shows a competence with the battle sequences, from a terrifying confrontation with mutated monkeys to a spinning cornucopia. But despite being presented with a more diverse group of Hunger Games competitors, he does little to play up their individuality.
"Catching Fire" is a good enough representation of the second book that it won't upset fans. Those who don't know the book will find a film that is a mildly altered version of the first movie in the series. That makes it easy enough to skip and wait for the final two movies.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," rated PG-13 for violence, language. Stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Running time: 146 minutes. Grade: B-
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.