“You fought very hard in the games, Ms. Everdeen. But they were games.”
This is the warning offered to Katniss Everdeen by a frostily whiskered President Snow early in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to the 2012 franchise opener. But it works pretty well, too, as a critique of the first film and a promise that this one will be better. Which it is: better directed, better scripted, better cast. Perhaps most important, Catching Fire does a more faithful job of capturing the grim vision of Suzanne Collins’s source novels than its rather tepid predecessor. This movie feels hungry.
To recap: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a resident of District 12, an impoverished mining province held in thrall by a remote and tyrannical Capitol. Every year, in punishment for a past rebellion, the Capitol requires all 12 districts under its rule to supply two teenage “tributes”—one girl and one boy—to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised, to-the-death tournament with only one survivor. In the previous movie, Katniss was selected to represent District 12 along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a sweet young baker who also happened to be in love with her. Pretending to love him back, Katniss succeeded in engineering a scenario whereby both she and Peeta were allowed to survive the Games.
Which brings us to the present film. Katniss and Peeta, now celebrities as a result of their (genuine) win and (counterfeit) romance, are preparing to act as show ponies for the Capitol on a nationwide “victory tour,” when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) waltzes in with his warning. While most of the viewing public may have been taken in by Katniss’s show of love in the Games, Snow explains, he recognized it for what it was: an act of defiance. And he was not alone. There are embers of unrest flaring up across the districts, and many would like to hold Katniss up as a symbol of their rebellion. Anything she does that might encourage this association, Snow threatens, will result in dire consequences for her family and her district.
Thus are the stakes set: Be a good girl and no one gets hurt (at least, beyond the customary pains and privations inflicted by the Capitol). Be a bad girl …
Anyone familiar with the books, the movies, or the obligations of blockbuster cinema will have no difficulty guessing which path Katniss winds up taking. She is, after all, not terribly good with that whole “authority” thing. It is likewise little surprise that the story will ultimately wind its way into another installment of the Hunger Games. (It’s right there in the title!)
But from the start, Catching Fire feels more consequential than its predecessor. In The Hunger Games, the violence was mostly confined to the arena, and the film (for obvious commercial reasons) shied away from depicting it too graphically. For a film about children murdering children, it was remarkably unshocking. This time out, too, the bloodshed is kept to a minimum. But now the violence is not merely physical, but existential. Far from having won her freedom as promised, Katniss is now imprisoned in a false public narrative—supporter of the Capitol, lover of Peeta—from which she may never escape. As her mentor, the former tribute Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), explains to her on the victory tour, “You never get off this train. From now on your job is to be a distraction.”
Francis Lawrence, who inherited the directing reins from the first movie’s Gary Ross, delivers a film that is at once weightier and more nimble. Though the storyline has begun to sprawl outward (which will prove an escalating challenge for the next two films), Lawrence consistently maintains clarity and momentum. He’s aided tremendously by a lean but faithful script by pros’ pros Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire).
As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence again pulls off a tricky balancing act: angry, closed off, and occasionally sullen, yet still likable, admirable, and relatable. Yes, like her counterpart in the Twilight series, she’s a tad fickle in her affections, which she divides between Peeta and her longtime District 12 confidant Gale (a rather dull Liam Hemsworth). But the film wisely chooses not to waste much time on her romantic dilemmas. Who can afford such luxuries when the world is burning? The rest of the returning cast (which also includes Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Lenny Kravitz) once again offer solid if not terribly memorable support.
The newcomers to the franchise, by contrast, offer immediate dividends. Though there’s a whiff of been-there-done-that to the tournament that takes up the latter portion of the film, Katniss’s fellow entrants include a brainy, bespectacled Beetee (Jeffrey Wright); a spacey-intense Wiress (Amanda Plummer); a diligently self-loving Finnick (Sam Claflin); and a mad-as-hell-not-going-to-take-it-anymore Johanna (Jena Malone, who’s rewarded with perhaps the film’s most gratifying moment).
Best of all, however, is the Capitol’s new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee—yes, I hate that name as much as you do—played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. As he did in Mission: Impossible III, Hoffman recognizes that the best way to get noticed in a movie full of urgent incident and outsized characters is to dial down everything in his own performance. Though his screen time is limited, Hoffman’s portrait of understatement classes up the entire movie. At one point, as circumstances are spinning out of the Capitol’s control, he reassures President Snow, “There’s a way we can still win. It’s what we Gamemakers call a ‘wrinkle.’” Casting Hoffman was itself a wrinkle, and a win.