Sometimes the fans have it exactly right. They turned out for the movie version of The Hunger Games last year, and while they generally approved of it, it wasn’t without reservations. The sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, seems to have been made with an eye toward fixing everything that was ragged about the first film. There’s more balance between the plotlines, more sense of the decadent Capitol as a place, and more sense of both the Capitol and the poor outlying districts as part of the dystopian nation of Panem. The special effects are integrated better into the action. The supporting characters are more fully realized. We get more material about post-traumatic stress and the sense that these characters are constantly being filmed and calibrating their words and actions to the cameras.
In short, there’s more of the stuff that made its source, Suzanne Collins’ novel, so remarkable. I’d love to report that this adds up to a great movie. It doesn’t, but it does add up to a sequel that’s a good deal more satisfying than its predecessor.
Picking up some months after her victory in the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her family now live in a nice, big house and no longer have to scrounge for food. However, our heroine is shell-shocked, haunted by nightmares, and no longer able to go bowhunting without flashing back to her experiences in the Games. Additionally, she finds herself a symbol of anti-government resentment when she and her co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) take the victors’ customary publicity tour of the districts. Eventually, the Games’ two-faced new designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) conceives a diabolical idea to neutralize her by throwing her back into a special edition of the Hunger Games fought by the tournament’s previous winners.
Francis Lawrence (who previously directed I Am Legend and Constantine and is no relation to the lead actress) takes over the direction here, and where you could feel Gary Ross wanting to fast-forward through the exposition to get to the Games in the first film, Lawrence devotes equal time to Katniss’ new life in District 12, where she is closely watched by the government. The scene when the president of Panem (Donald Sutherland) drops by Katniss’ house to intimidate her packs a terrific stinger at the end, and his private conversations with the game designer continue to be a nice addition to Collins’ saga. So many sequels pull themselves out of shape trying to accommodate both holdover characters and new ones, but this one manages the trick nicely, revealing new layers in Katniss’ now-secret boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her sister Prim (Willow Shields), and her handler Effie (Elizabeth Banks) while introducing a more personable crop of tributes competing in the Games (including Lynn Cohen, Jena Malone, and Jeffrey Wright).
What’s missing here is a spark of genius from the director, a touch to rival the ingenuity that Collins brought to her novels and to dazzle even those of us who’ve read the books. Realistically speaking, Francis Lawrence isn’t the filmmaker to provide that. He’s just here to make sure the story maintains its momentum and the special effects look reasonably good, things he does well. A tantalizing idea gets floated when Plutarch initially plans to destroy Katniss by having the state media depict her as a spoiled rich girl. Seeing that in action might have given us a window into Panem’s celebrity culture (and a mirror onto our own), but frustratingly the idea is never mentioned again.
If there is a spark of genius in this movie, it comes from Jennifer Lawrence, who is rapidly turning into an actor of terrifying strength. This installment of the trilogy does give her more to play, and she comes through with flying colors whether she’s twinkling with satisfaction as Katniss prepares to shoot a wild turkey or setting her jaw (and her eyebrows in a straight line across her face) as she prepares to face a mortal threat or freaking the hell out and running into the woods when Katniss learns she has to go back into the arena. The final shot of the film is her reaction to a terrible piece of news, as we see her grief morphing into a cold determination to take revenge on Panem’s government. If this film series can gather strength the way its lead actress is doing, it will be formidable indeed.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, based on Suzanne Collins’ novel. Rated PG-13.