Vigorous, gripping, fast-paced, and suitably poignant, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a sequel to write home about, one that improves the original on (almost) every level, expands its themes, and travels to darker destinations. An assured approach to the action and a smoother, steady-handed integration of an increasing number of ensemble players handily elevates Catching Fire above its mangy predecessor.
Gary Ross, director of the first Hunger Games, previously helmed the perfectly mediocre Seabiscuit. Francis Lawrence, director of Catching Fire, previously helmed the perfectly mediocre Constantine and I Am Legend. The urgent difference is two-fold: Lawrence had more experience entering the Games, and had more experience with post-apocalyptic thrillers. As such, Catching Fire is a visually polished, entertaining popcorn flick; a gutsy, epic, and dependable piece of consumer product.
As it opens, Panem – Suzanne Collins’ technological totalitarian state – is reeling from the Capitol’s crackdown, a response to the implications of the first two-survivor Games, an “act of defiance, not of love,” in the words of President Snow (a malevolent, one-note Donald Sutherland). Besieged by PTSD, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is touring the districts to honour the fallen. When the “Quarter-Qwell” 75th anniversary is used as an excuse to reap from the victors, Katniss is herded back to the arena, facing tsunamis, poison fog, blood rain, and killer baboons.
Jennifer Lawrence is one of the top actresses working today. She gave one of the best female performances of the past five years in Winter’s Bone. She frontlines a franchise already worth almost $600 million domestically and over $1 billion worldwide. She steals every role with equal aplomb. She has one Academy Award and another nomination, and is rumoured for a third in American Hustle this year. And she is only 23 years old. In both Hunger Games, she is a glowering, haunted, courageous warrior and heroine, and the pulsing engine of these movies. She commands the screen with effortless magnetism, equally gorgeous and resourceful, a tomboy and a princess.
Catching Fire makes irrefutable missteps: it feels like a middle chapter, and the ending is jarringly abrupt. The first hour is a profane nightmare of screenwriting, scrimping on character development, ducking any contextual exposition. The story is a patchwork of disparate ingredients from Orwell to Stephen King; a few scenes suffer from a loss of clarity; the adversary tributes are poorly developed (except for Jena Malone, who is a clothes-shedding wonder). Philip Seymour Hoffman appears to be treading water. As Peeta Mellark, Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) has more personality, but little depth. It’s hampered by its PG-13 rating. In an ideal world, we’d have higher praise for films costing – and earning – piles of money than “stirring and superficial.”
The Hunger Games is self-contradictory, precisely the thing it claims to criticize: a work of symbolic and therapeutic violence, hoping to make us feel better about oppressive conditions. That said, Catching Fire remains a wholly serviceable continuation of a narrative that has captivated millions. It drives the stakes up and whets one’s appetite for a grand, potent finale (the two-part Mockingjay, coming in 2014 and 2015). It leaves the corpses of other battle-weary teen series, from Twilight and The Mortal Instruments to Percy Jackson and The Host, slain at its feet.
There is no District 12, but there is still Katniss Everdeen. Because of Jennifer Lawrence, for two more installments, we’ll follow her to the end.