“The Hunger Games” featured kids killing kids for sport. Its sequel, the far superior “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” rewrites the rules, which not only makes for a more exciting death match, but also yields a rich sociopolitical critique in the process, in keeping with the incendiary subtext of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel. Though technically just the bridge between the lower-budget original and the two-part finale still to come, in director Francis Lawrence’s steady hands (gone are the previous film’s needlessly spastic camera moves), “Catching Fire” makes for rousing entertainment in its own right, leaving fans riled and ready to storm the castle. Massive international interest should leave Lionsgate with coffers full and money to burn.
If “Catching Fire” were a traditional studio sequel, one could reasonably expect a bigger, bloodier elimination contest to take centerstage — more of the same, presumably amplified by the extra $50 million or so Lionsgate poured into the budget this time around. Instead, this film hews to the model established by the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises, where fidelity to the source material takes precedence, allowing this fictional world to grow deeper and more complex with each successive installment.
Unlike the authors of those book series, Collins got her start in screenwriting, which might explain her almost instinctively cinematic sense of storytelling, in which characters and scenes are described so vividly, fans can scarcely wait to see how they will be translated onscreen. On that level — and despite its hefty $691 million worldwide haul — “The Hunger Games” was a disappointment, clumsily shot and strangely cast (Jennifer Lawrence was nearly a decade too old, while Josh Hutcherson was hardly the stocky baker’s son readers had pictured).
Good, then, that the reins have passed from “Hunger Games” helmer Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence — a director with a firm grasp of large-canvas filmmaking, equally skilled at tense, white-knuckle sci-fi (“I Am Legend”) and bald, unapologetic romance (as evidenced by his excellent yet underseen circus swooner, “Water for Elephants”). Both qualities come strongly into play here, as the director finds the perfect balance between emotion and excitement.
Fortunes have changed significantly for Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) since the starvation days of life in District 12. Making good on Scarlett O’Hara’s vow, she and her clan will never be hungry again, thanks to a shrewd move that forced the game-makers to accept both her and fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) as winners. The country’s corrupt figurehead, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), doesn’t take kindly to being outwitted, however, and his latest scheme to keep the people of Panem in check will pit the survivors of previous Hunger Games against one another.
The story opens as Katniss and Peeta make their victory tour, during which they are permitted not only to observe how the other 11 districts live, but also to glimpse the nascent signs of rebellion throughout the country (an unspecified portion of the United States set in a not-so-distant future, ably represented by location shooting in Atlanta). Having defied the capital once already, the couple signifies hope to all those who feel oppressed, just as their story galvanizes real-world auds into feeling the same way.
More than half the film unfolds before the 75th annual Hunger Games actually begin. Much of that time is spent expanding our understanding of this ruthlessly oppressive society and raising the stakes for the uprising in store. As the couple’s CG train zips between districts, we see how Snow’s stormtroopers buckle down on what little freedom remains, offset by the empty frivolity of life in the capital — a nonstop binge-and-purge banquet where wild hairstyles and lavish costume changes provide distraction from an idle existence.
This is Oz reimagined as a fascist state, nearly all of its color drained to an overcast brown-gray. It may seem like a small thing, but choosing the right costume designer makes an enormous impact on the new film, as Trish Summerville (2011’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) crafts a stunning array of fashions to reflect the citizens’ show-offy attitudes (including a dress made entirely of monarch butterflies). Clothing plays a central role in Collins’ books, and finally, the crew seems capable of bringing her elaborate costumes to life, including the impossible-sounding wedding dress Katniss wears to her big TV interview.
Since many “Hunger Games” fans hang on every such detail, director Lawrence paces the film accordingly, giving audiences time to take it all in, even if it means delaying the big arena showdown they’ve presumably all come to see. The film does breeze through Katniss’ visit to the victors’ housing, which might have yielded a bit more insight into the lifestyle she and Peeta could have hoped to enjoy, had Snow and replacement game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, a casting coup) not found a way to pull them back in.
Instead, the reigning champs meet their fellow survivors in the training arena, forging alliances with the five people least likely to improve their chances in an all-pro slaughter. There’s pretty-boy hustler Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, devilishly charming) and his octogenarian mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), an irrepressible rebel named Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), and a pair of odd-ball inventors whom everyone calls Nuts and Volts (Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright, looking like escapees from a Terry Gilliam movie).
By emphasizing the tentative trust among these seven characters, as opposed to simply stirring up another every-child-for-herself battle royale, “Catching Fire” lays the groundwork for the ambitious next chapter — operating as a close-knit team in order to effect change — and introduces friends too dear to eliminate. Still, it’s not as if this installment skimps on violence. Rather, the threats come in many new forms this time around, from poison fog to bloody rain. As in Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story “The Veldt,” this exotic arena boasts its own sinister agenda, unleashing fresh challenges upon the combatants at the top of every hour.
As before, the central duo strikes a balance between survival and selflessness, as Katniss and Peeta prioritize others’ lives before their own. Though far older at 23 than the wide-eyed 16-year-old described in the book, Jennifer Lawrence masterfully conveys the character’s naivete, while bringing a strength and resolve no preteen actor possibly could. In the time since the first movie, she has become a bona fide star, which suits a character who feels overwhelmed by her own celebrity.
Behind Collins’ bestseller lies a shrewd social commentary. In “The Hunger Games,” the author turned an exploitation premise on its head, challenging the public to reconcile their moral outrage over a bad-taste killing contest with the bloodlust they felt in wanting to see Katniss survive. Here, she reveals how widespread media exposure can be used to subvert the status quo, even as she dismantles the allure of fame, the hollow goal to which so many young people aspire.
With its pseudo-war-photography shooting style, the first film played jittery tag-along witness to Katniss’ ordeal. By taming the camera and focusing on the emotional truth of each highly charged moment, the director and d.p. Jo Willems (“Limitless”) invite us into Katniss’ head, which is where the first-person books unfolded. Through her eyes, Peeta’s sacrifices seem even more noble (crucial for the big twist to work in the upcoming “Mockingjay”), the threats that much more immediate.
In Imax, the widescreen aspect ratio expands to fill the entire screen during the Hunger Games portion of the film, though it’s an unnecessary boost, as helmer Lawrence and his team have calibrated the entire experience for maximum engagement. And while its pleasures can’t touch the thrill of seeing the Death Star destroyed — not yet, at least — the film runs circles around George Lucas’ ability to weave complex political ideas into the very fabric of B-movie excitement.