Strangely enough, one of the least interesting things about The Hunger Games, last year’s dystopian YA smash, was the Hunger Games themselves. Blame PG-13, for starters: Suzanne Collins’ nightmarish conceit—Battle Royale meets Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” with a reality-TV twist—was sanitized for multiplexes, resulting in a weirdly bloodless blockbuster about kids killing kids. (In other words, it’s hard to make a proper death-match movie for the whole family.) The bigger issue, however, is that once Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the iron-willed archer from District 12, rose into that arena for battle, moral ambiguity basically fell by the wayside. Suddenly there were rooting interests, with the unlucky contestants cleanly divided into heroic or villainous camps, and the film—once a satire, now simply a run-of-the-mill action survival yarn—bent over backwards to assure that its heroine never faced any truly tough choices. It became clear in retrospect that the real drama had happened before the games, in the bizarro-world media blitz that led into them.
That’s true again in Catching Fire, a sequel that manages, thanks to a loophole in Panem law, to mimic the basic structure of the original. Getting that bow back into Katniss’ hands required a little cheating on Collins’ part, and reliable sources report that the second Hunger Games novel plays like a pale imitation of the first. Onscreen, however, the opposite is true: Catching Fire may follow a recycled trajectory, moving inevitably from the talk-show circuit to the battlefield, but it does so with much more panache and wit than the last film did. Partly, that’s because directing duties have passed from Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) to Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), and Lawrence demonstrates a much steadier hand—figuratively and, given the blessed lack of shakycam, literally—than his predecessor. But it also has to do with the understanding, shared by screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, that Collins’ post-apocalyptic setting is most fascinating as a kind of cracked-mirror reflection of our current celebrity age.
Picking up months after the events of the previous installment, Catching Fire finds Katniss still haunted by painful memories of the games, and torn between two jealous suitors: hometown boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a little sore about seeing his beloved make out with another guy on national television, and fellow competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), similarly hurt to learn that his love affair was a show for the cameras. None too pleased about the way the winners gamed the Games, forcing the powers that be to allow a draw, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) imparts upon Katniss the importance of keeping up smitten appearances. Much of the film’s superb first hour thus plays like a high-stakes, politicized dramatization of The Bachelorette, with Katniss and Peeta forced to tour the districts as a happy couple, smiling and waving to an increasingly unruly populace. But will they stick to the script? There’s danger and, yes, real drama in the way Catching Fire turns each public appearance into a propaganda war, or what new Gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) calls a game of “moves and countermoves.” Even more so than in the original, the satire—of media as distraction, of celebrity as power—has considerable heft.
If but the same could be said for the love triangle. So commanding is Lawrence in her reprised role, which requires both action-heroine steeliness and movie-star charisma, that it’s a shame to see her paired off with a couple of duds. Surely there are better options for an eagle-eyed asskicker like Katniss than Gale, brooding endlessly on the sidelines, or Peeta, with his clinginess and guilt trips? (Do any Hunger Games fans fall into Team Neither?) Aside from the bland love interests, though, Catching Fire is filthy with stellar backup—from Woody Harrelson’s tough-love mentor figure to Stanley Tucci’s leathery host to Hoffman’s mysterious careerist. Like the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games films double as showcases (and easy paychecks) for a supporting cast of fine, seasoned pros.
Inevitably, Catching Fire morphs into an action movie, jettisoning the media skirmishes in favor of more running, hiding in or around trees, and dispatching underdeveloped rivals. Even in that respect, however, it’s an improvement on the last go around: Lawrence stages the violence with less skittishness and more precision, and the film keeps throwing new obstacles—a deadly fog, a flock of ominously screaming birds—at its weary combatants. It also populates the games with a few actual personalities, including an enjoyably unhinged Jena Malone. As for the ending, it seems destined to tick off the non-diehards: Like too many franchise installments, Catching Fire builds to more of an ellipsis than a period, teasing the next chapter instead of providing closure. But isn’t that true of The Empire Strikes Back as well? At least casual fans will only have to wait a year, not three, to see what happens next in this galaxy not so far away.