(Note: This review contains spoilers for the first movie but nothing major for the sequel.)
The Hunger Games movies represent a rarity among Hollywood franchises: uncommonly intelligent and socially conscious, littered with terrific performances and supported by unobtrusive special effects. Director Gary Ross’ original is far from perfect, but it provides a compelling introduction to a post-apocalyptic world rife with commentary that rings true in our present moment, and Jennifer Lawrence’s capable lead performance provides an unconventional and appealing lens for exploring media manipulation, reality television constructs, cultures of violence and oppressive powers. Though Ross’ directorial ineptitude skewers the numerous action sequences and the PG-13 rating limits the onscreen bloodshed to the point of desensitization, The Hunger Games asks questions that other blockbusters, especially ones based on popular novels for young people, wouldn’t dare touch.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence’s sequel to the 2012 megahit, is an altogether superior film, with tighter pacing and a stronger command of scale and tone. Despite its daunting running time, this movie’s 143 minutes justify the methodical approach to the storytelling, which deals with the aftermath of Katniss Everdeen’s actions at the end of the first movie before rushing headlong into the meat of this one. The original film’s subversive spirit comes into stronger focus here, as the futuristic nation of Panem edges closer to full-on revolution. Even the performances, generally strong in the original, make a more powerful impact this time around. The result is the year’s most satisfying blockbuster, marrying the thrills of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking with the thoughtfulness of an author’s world-building instincts.
The movie dispenses with exposition early on, trusting the audience to remember the events of the first movie or intuit them from context clues. Katniss sets out with her co-champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) on a cross-Panem victory tour, accompanied by their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and fashion advisor Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks, even more delightfully sugary than last time). It seems the masses have latched on to Katniss’ defiance of tyranny at the end of the 74th games, adopting her beloved mockingjay pin as a symbol of their collective restlessness. Though she empathizes with their plight, having experienced plenty of hardship in her pre-Games life, Katniss is reluctant to embrace the role of revolutionary leadership that she’s accidentally thrust upon herself.
Now seems as good a time as any to praise Jennifer Lawrence to the heavens. She was good, even excellent, in the original, but her multilayered performance reaches another gear in Catching Fire. When Katniss steps up to the microphone in an attempt to atone for the death of her onetime ally Rue, I found myself suppressing a tear. In the hands of a lesser actress, Katniss could be a bland caricature of a “strong female character” or a hapless romantic unreasonably torn between her long-held affections for Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her burgeoning attraction to Peeta. But Lawrence is far too smart to settle for one-dimensionality. Instead, she combines both impulses with a deeper sense of compassion for Katniss’ tentativeness and a foundation of intensity that carries her through her journey’s most challenging passages. Every tear, every emphatic cry of “PRIM!” and “PEETA!” and “NO!”, every gesture of frustration and indifference and admiration and affection rings true because Lawrence is thinking, contemplating, acting even when she’s not speaking. She won last year’s Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook. She’ll never win for playing this part, but if she did, you wouldn’t find me complaining.
Lawrence isn’t the movie’s only asset. Philip Seymour Hoffman was an inspired choice to play Plutarch Heavensbee, the new lead gamesmaker (R.I.P. Seneca Crane, but I didn’t much miss Wes Bentley). Jena Malone and Sam Claflin make strong first impressions as Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair, two of Katniss’ allies in the Quarter Quell. Even Josh Hutcherson, underwhelming and stiff in his recent stint on Saturday Night Live, provides Peeta with a touch more shading than the book’s flat characterization suggests. (As for Liam Hemsworth, the jury’s still out. Neither movie has given Gale a full-bodied subplot, and Hemsworth hasn’t exactly set the screen on fire in his obligatory appearances thus far. His brother hails from the mythical Asgard, though, so hope remains.)
The aimlessness of the book’s first half might have been even more tedious onscreen, but Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael DeBruyn introduce enough potent ideas to sustain interest in the movie’s quieter early sections. The welcome return of Caesar Flickerman affords Stanley Tucci another opportunity to show off his grade-A Ryan Seacrest interpretation – his interview with Katniss represents another series highlight. Meanwhile, the machinations of the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland) chart a predictable course, but they lay important groundwork for the developments to come. Katniss’ ongoing flirtations with Peeta and Gale threaten to devolve into Twilight-esque melodrama, but the movie’s exploration of the blurred lines between media contrivance and genuine feeling ground the relationships in interesting dynamics.
Eventually Katniss and Peeta end up in the Quarter Quell, facing off against twenty-two former victors in an ingeniously designed arena that telsts both their physical and emotional willpower. The action sequences in Catching Fire represent a welcome step up from the chaos of the original, and Francis Lawrence appears more concerned with approximating the devastating impact of these Games on the faces and in the hearts of the competitors. The biggest flaw in Catching Fire remains the series’ indifference to the consequences of horrific violence against children. Perhaps it’s hypocritical to argue that a modern American movie isn’t violent enough, but a movie that takes on the responsibility of critiquing violent culture ought not to chasten the impact of the violence for the audience’s comfort.
Populist limitations aside, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire accomplishes the unenviable task of condensing the unconventionally structured middle installment of a beloved book trilogy into a satisfying and affecting movie on an enormous scale. I’m not inherently jazzed by the prospect of splitting the final book into two more movies. Nonetheless, the cliffhanger at the end of Catching Fire leaves me intrigued to see the rest of this story translated onscreen. In the final shot, Katniss stares into the camera with a vividly effective mixture of apprehension, recognition and revolution flitting across her face. Her story isn’t over yet. The revolution is about to begin.