The problem with the first Hunger Games movie, based on the first book in Suzanne Collins's bestselling young adult novel series, was that it stripped the story of its most necessary aspect. Meaning, it flinched away from the novel's graphic violence, when directly confronting that violence was sort of the whole point. (Collins has said that she wrote the books, about a future America where kids are ritualistically sent off to slaughter each other, partly in response to the Iraq war.) To shy away means to give all this brutality the mystery and vagueness it needs in order to continue (same as censoring pictures of coffins and battlefields, etc.), and in doing so, the first film, directed by Gary Ross, felt almost like a betrayal.
The second film in the series, Catching Fire, also spares us most of the up-close crunch and splatter, but it at least makes up for that lack with a richer and far better-defined sense of the broader horror. No doubt helped by the growing stakes of Collins's story, director Francis Lawrence has added a much-needed weight to the dystopian world of Panem. The nation, comprised of a fascistic Capitol and twelve (or thirteen??) satellite districts whose citizens essentially work as slaves to the wealthy elites, is in turmoil, now that our hero, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), has so brazenly, and courageously, flouted the Hunger Games rules. You see, rather than kill Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her teammate and supposed boyfriend, she suggested that they both kill themselves — that way nobody wins, thus taking back some key measure of control from the people running the show. It was a nervy violation, but both Katniss and Peeta were nonetheless saved, beloved as they were by an audience enthralled with their love story. It was a happy-ish ending, though nothing in this world stays good for long.
Catching Fire opens in winter, the camera flying ominously over the bare, snow-flecked hills of the Appalachia that Katniss's District 12 represents. When we first glimpse her, flinty eyed and darker haired, it's clear that Katniss has changed. She's haunted, skittish, brittle with anger. She is, of course, also deeply scared, and she's right to be. The leader of the Capitol, purring President Snow (Donald Sutherland), has paid her a visit and threatened to harm everyone she loves should she fail to mollify the newly restless masses during her upcoming victory tour of the districts. Defiant Katniss has become something of a revolutionary figure, which isn't good for, well, anyone.
Thus the first stretch of the film's tension is established, with Katniss inwardly siding with the oppressed people she encounters on her train tour of Panem, but needing to act as a cheerleader spokeswoman for the Capitol in order to protect her family. Complicating matters are her relationships with Peeta, who obviously loves her but knows that their relationship is, at present, just a PR sham, and her longtime best pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who's also smitten. She's into him too, but she can't risk harming the all-important Peeta-and-Katniss narrative. Katniss is surrounded by rocks and hard places, and Lawrence captures the immediacy of that thwartedness and omnipresent dread better than Ross's film ever did. The love triangle is credible and well-balanced, too, which is something the Twilight films, for example, never had going for them.
What really grabbed me about Collins's well-paced if often descriptively muddy novels was the story's grim relentlessness, the constricting sense that Katniss's situation was impossible, that it was bound to get worse before it ever got better, if it ever did. Catching Fire captures that mood well. The pre-arena half of the film (of course there's going to be another Hunger Games, duh) does a deft job of blending the grittier district tones with the heightened silliness of the Capitol in smooth gradations. Panem feels realer, and thus scarier, than it did the last time around, and these films should, above all else, be scary.
Not satisfied with the job Katniss has done on her tour, Snow and his new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devise a cruelly clever plan: For the 75th Hunger Games, they'll pit a bunch of former winners against each other. Meddlesome Katniss is the only living female winner from her district, so she's guaranteed to go in. And so we're off to another grueling, days-long melee, this one taking place in a circular, tropical arena filled with initially unseen terrors. On the way to the arena, we get to meet some of Katniss's competition, played by actors as varied as Lynn Cohen, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, and Jena Malone. All are admirably game, but Wright and Malone are particular standouts. Malone's character, axe-wielding badass Johanna Mason, is a fan favorite, and it's a pleasant surprise to see an historically uneven actress like Malone rise so winningly to the task. So far, the Hunger Games franchise has a much keener eye for casting than the Twilight films ever did. (Sorry to beat up on you, Twilight.)
Collins's world-building abilities begin to break down when we arrive at this arena, but Lawrence is able to clarify much of the book's blurriness. Catching Fire's climax is muscular and propulsive, moving us swiftly toward an Empire Strikes Back-esque cliffhanger that's both bleak and rousing. (There are two more films in this series, but Catching Fire would serve well as the middle part of a trilogy.) It's a testament to Lawrence's directorial achievement that I wanted to jump right into the next film, would have happily sat in the theater for another two and a half hours to see what happened next. Lawrence and his screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, have done a fine job of calibrating the film's many moving parts, action serving as a ballast for heaps of exposition, flashes of mordant humor darting through all the despair and destruction. While Catching Fire may be lacking a certain nuance or artistry, it's a competent, thoughtfully constructed film, a nerve-jangling political-ish action picture that also plays like decent science fiction.
And of course I'd be remiss not to mention our lead, another Lawrence, this one named Jennifer, who affords this material perhaps even more respect and seriousness than it deserves. Hers is an admirably efficient, almost utilitarian performance; hard-nosed, determined, honest. She is the trembling but sturdy heart of these films, inviting us in with vulnerability and thus allowing us to better share in her thrilling victories. Lawrence manages to command attention in an unselfish way, which is perhaps the mark of a true movie star. In Catching Fire, her Katniss is an unwitting symbol of the future, thrown into a dangerous world and told to succeed within it for the sake of the whole enterprise. That experience can't be that dissimilar to Lawrence's own adventures in Hollywood thus far. Let's hope she can hack it. Something tells me she can.