Last Spring, The Hunger Games was released to middling expectations and a general consensus that distributor Lionsgate had already found a suitable replacement for their Twilight cash cow. Those expectations were surprisingly and undoubtedly exceeded as critics and audiences alike wound up invested in the dystopian world of Panem, with its juxtaposition of the fantasy inspired Capitol against 12 segregated and dirt-poor districts, its more grounded and natural love triangle with slight twists, and of course the actual Hunger Games. Unless simply sharing a love triangle plot device is automatic grounds for making Twilight comparisons, it still makes zero sense that they are paralleled. To say that the original Hunger Games was enjoyable would be a massive understatement; it instantaneously garnered a substantial fanbase that will unquestionably grow with Catching Fire, which is by all accounts an even grander film. Many sequels drop with an admirable intention to up the plot stakes with the goal of outdoing their previous efforts, before ultimately failing, but Catching Fire never once falls into those problematic traps and instead feels like one bolder, smarter, and more entertaining film that improves upon its predecessor in every way. Catching Fire begins essentially where its predecessor left off; Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) tampered with the rules of the 74th annual Hunger Games, inadvertently sparking hope for a long awaited revolution against the oppressive Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the rest of his cronies also smell revolution in the air, and embark on a pretty hefty blackmailing campaign, essentially telling Katniss and Peeta to cut the motivational melodrama regarding fallen friends and adversaries out of their speeches throughout their victory tour, under threat of familial murder. They are given pre-prepared speeches and are encouraged to focus on keeping up their false love affection for each other,and to keep them from making empowering speeches that instill hope into a crumbled and defeated society. Catching Fire packs in a scary dosage of reality throughout its thematic emphasis on a government controlling its citizens through grand-scale distraction them away from the real issues in the world; get the attention of the people sucked into superfluous matters and suddenly higher ups feel a lot more comfortable living their lives of luxury. It's this social relevance that adds a layer of depth to the whole affair, successfully intertwining style and substance. Aside from containing various political allegories that hit shockingly close to home, Catching Fire is ultimately Hollywood blockbuster escapism and it excels once again on those terms. The special effects are as dazzling as the costume/production design, creating spectacular and colorfully eccentric environments that feel inseparable from the franchise. Even meaningless background characters will look incredible, always appearing in distinctive and eye-catching garments that add a gloss to the film's universe. The Hunger Games arena has also drastically been tweaked and is now in a forest with a lake positioned directly in the middle. The entire arena is laid out circular like a clock, with one of twelve different environmental hazards, ranging from violent waves to poison fog and angry monkeys, which are introduced at the top of each hour. They make for some truly excitingly perilous sequences that feel both fresh and innovative. Everything about this arena is more memorable than anything from the original film: outside of the interesting and hazardous design, the battle scenes also no longer suffer from an overload of unnecessary shaky camera that completely obstruct your view of whatever tantalizing action packed event is occurring. If this is the byproduct of a new director in Francis Lawrence, then it's fantastic news that he will also be finishing the trilogy. My only gripe with the games this time around is something that The Hunger Games unequivocally nailed; achieving sympathy for other participants forced into the barbaric combat. There were some really emotional death scenes from these characters of ultimately lesser significance, and Catching Fire clearly tries to mimic that feat but the results come with poor execution and elicited nothing but a shrug from this author. This time around it just feels assumed that you're going to care as the filmmakers just rely on the shock of the inevitable death to evoke sadness; it doesn't work. Its possibly due to the fact that a much smaller chunk of the running time is distributed to the games, let alone detailing who these new characters are and why we should even care about them. The entire situation is a double-edged sword however, considering that the training scenes feel all too familiar a pointless retread anyway, and are easily the only low point in the entertainment. The action in the arena more than compensates for this slight shortcoming though. There are some new characters introduced though, immediately claiming a pivotal spot in the grander scheme of things. Philip Seymour Hoffman for example plays Plutarch Heavensby- the new gamemaker- and as usual the unquestionably talented actor makes an impact, further driving up interest in the unfolding story. Other actors including Woody Harrelson reprise their role and alleviate the drama once again with amusing comedic quips. Jennifer Lawrence also rides high off of her Oscar winning performance with yet another fantastic outing that compels, whether she is fighting for survival with her trademark bow or visibly distraught over a traumatic event. Catching Fire may have The Hunger Games title attached to it, but this is a much more personal film that opts to expand on the lore of Panem and consequences of the predecessor film, while simultaneously upping the stakes in every conceivable way for what is sure to be a crowd pleasing trilogy capping two-parter. Not only is Catching Fire smart, stylistically entertaining, brilliantly acted, and socially relevant, it manages to avoid coming across as 2 and a half hours of filler for an epic trilogy. That test is reserved for Mockingjay Part 1. Catching Fire is now playing in both US and UK cinemas.