Hunger is a powerful motivating force, one made palpable in the first film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling, alternate-history, young-adult book series about a nation of have-nots under the boot of a fascistic ruler. The desperate drive to survive is a dampened flame in the sequel, and that makes sense. This is no longer the story of an innocent forced into a nationally-televised battle to the death; the innocent, a spitfire named Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), bested the Hunger Games by breaking the rules, and the nation has since become inflamed with the realization that there is wiggle room under said boot. Once a pawn in the Hunger Games, Katniss has become a reluctant symbol of rebellion, even as she is trying her very best to behave (she understands well the punishment for misbehavior will be meted out to her loved ones). Early in the sequel, Katniss – dutifully making a state-mandated propaganda lap around the districts – goes off-script and speaks from the heart about her dead friend Rue, inciting a riot. The accidental firestarter wails like an innocent anew: What did I do? Lesson learned – the game may have changed, but she’s still a pawn.
Then again, second verse, same as the first: Catching Fire inevitably must wend its way back to the Hunger Games arena. This time, that gladiatorial horrorscape is tricked out with poisonous fog, feral monkeys, and tsunami waves, and the competitors are culled from previous Hunger Games victors, which occasions terrific cast additions like Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, and Jena Malone (deliciously unhinged and – calling it now – a dark horse Supporting Actress nominee). Director Francis Lawrence is part of the wave of fresh troops, presumably tapped for his action-film credentials (I Am Legend, Constantine). The combat action ain’t all that, lacking the invigorating disorientation of the first film and its didactic pleasure in detailing the survivalist’s process. But Lawrence improves on the first film’s chintzy, rather benign idea of the bacchanalia that is Panem’s capital city (no atrocious green screens here). Lawrence nails the grotesquerie and arm-hair-pricking menace but good, with costume and set design strengthening the case, for a far more psychologically toothsome experience. Turns out that poisonous fog pales in comparison to the ongoing terrors of PTSD, universally suffered by Katniss and all the other Hunger Games combatants.
To say that Jennifer Lawrence is a star – as infinitely watchable picking her nose as picking off enemies with a bow and arrow (spoiler: She doesn’t actually pick her nose) – is to invite one long durrrrr in reply, and it’s no surprise how nimbly she moves between warrior stance and emotional collapse. But the film doesn’t always do right by her. There are certain shot choices that should have been left on the cutting-room floor, a clumsy final frame heavy with sequel portent, and she’s still stuck in a dead-limb love triangle with Hutcherson and Hemsworth (the male co-leads are the series’ only, everlasting casting miscues). I’m not sure it matters in the end. The Hunger Games franchise, both in print and onscreen, has been exceptionally clever about cozying away imaginative space for fans to fill in the blanks and cast themselves in the rich drama. That this latest film leaves us hungering for more only means that it’s working.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Lynn Cohen, Stanley Tucci, Amanda Plummer, Toby Jones