Last year, The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy, made Josh Hutcherson a heartthrob and Jennifer Lawrence a star. (Her Oscar-winning role in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook was merely the more prestigious cherry.) Director and co-writer Gary Ross culled a faithful enough visualization of the novel to satisfy the fangirls—-at least, that is, after the casting uproar calmed down. (If the first production of a beloved series doesn’t cause a casting uproar, you’re doing it wrong.)
But does anybody really remember it? All of it? The answer is likely no, unless you’re an OMG! yet literate teen. (Whom, if Venn diagrammed, would have only a slight overlap with the more easily impressed OMG! Twihard, the ultimate lovers of terrible writing.)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants), is significantly less amnesia-inducing. And even with a running time of 146 minutes—-four minutes longer than the first—-it feels tighter and more gripping.
Lawrence and Hutcherson return as Katniss and Peeta, the first-ever co-winners of the titular annual sport in which two citizens from each of 12 dystopian districts are selected to fight to the death for the amusement of the Capitol, the nauseatingly wealthy city that governs the poor, bleak states. They were both deemed triumphant because—-spoiler!—-after the torch-carrying Peeta and coolly strategic archer Katniss fell in love (or did they?), this last pair standing decided to commit suicide instead of killing the other. The Capitol, headed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), wasn’t about to let the “tributes” undermine the games, thus a new plan was brainstormed and their romance pushed as a crowd-pleasing narrative.
In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta go on a victory tour, offering canned speeches and condolences to the families of fallen tributes. But the districts’ subservience was eroding as the people regarded the couple’s willingness to take their own lives as an act of rebellion, and everyone else now wanted to rebel, too. Snow’s Peacekeepers quickly snuffed the noncompliant, which soon turned into an all-out war. To the young, frightened winners, this is an unexpected development. The announcement of the Quarter Quell, another games in which all the surviving tributes must participate, is even more soul-crushing and anger-inducing.
The second film of the series brims with tension and horrific moments that will make you hold your breath and gasp, respectively. The frequent violence is largely bloodless or occurs offscreen, though that doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching. This is a technologically advanced world, and the no-place-to-hide fear is palpable as suspicious district residents are murdered without thought.
Katniss is the reluctant leader of the uprisings, and the combination of Lawrence’s raw performance and a story with a depth of metaphorical detail about class warfare lends the film more emotional nuance than viewers usually get in a blockbuster. The actress’s character aches, is attitudinal, softens, and freaks out with seeming ease; she gives the usually laughable “Noooo!” after a death sincere poignancy. Even the supporting cast is top-notch: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson help polish the final, frequently spectacular-looking and inventive product. (The costumes? Like nothing you’ve ever seen.)
There was never any question that Catching Fire will be a success at the box office given its built-in audience. But nailing the more elusive critical acclaim—-as well as being comprehensible to those who haven’t read the books—-is a more impressive bulls-eye.