Warning: Contains mild spoilers, though nothing more than you get in the trailers and commercials.
Gary Ross's The Hunger Games—the first in a tetralogy of films adapting Suzanne Collins' trilogy of young-adult novels—was one of my favorite movies of 2012. Anchored by a strong, fully-realized performance from Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games treated the frequent absurdities and illogics of its world seriously, investing what might have been a silly sci-fi franchise with a sense of realism and genuine emotional stakes.
Opinions about the first film, however, were not universally positive: Ross, in particular, was criticized for his decision to shoot many of the film's action sequences in a chaotic, "shaky-cam" style that reflected the fear and confusion of its protagonist, sacrificing storytelling clarity for emotional impact. The news, therefore, that Ross would not return for the sequel, Catching Fire, was greeted with mixed reactions from critics and the fan community. Those of us in the "pro" camp worried that another director might not approach this easily train-wreckable material with the same sensitivity and sense of verité that had grounded the first film, while others hoped the franchise would be handed to someone who could take a more traditional approach to action scenes.
This tension is at the heart of the Hunger Games franchise, both in print and on-screen: the first two books, and the first two films, are both divided fairly evenly between scenes set in the larger society of Panem—the dystopian future America ruled by an oppressive regime—and scenes set in the Hunger Games themselves, the annual bloodsport reality show the regime uses to both punish and distract the 12 Districts of Panem. Some viewers may come for the social commentary and stay for the arena fight scenes, while others may have those priorities reversed.
Neither type of viewer will be entirely pleased or entirely disappointed by Catching Fire, in which director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) builds honorably—with only minor variations—on the foundations laid in the first film. Picking up shortly after the events of The Hunger Games, the sequel finds Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) fresh from her success in the arena, after using some poisonous berries to bluff the gamemakers into sparing both herself and her fellow "tribute" Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). But all is not rosy for the victors: Katniss is suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress, and—as she and Peeta commence their "victory tour" of the nation—they are forced to continue the charade that they are "star-crossed lovers." Katniss's subterfuge in the Games has risked turning her into a symbol for all the oppressed people of Panem, you see, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland, dripping venom with every word) has made it clear to her that she must convince the nation that she acted out of love, not one of political rebellion—or else she and her family will face the wrath of the Capitol. "It must be very fragile," Katniss says of the government, "if a handful of berries can bring it down." Yes, Snow agrees, it is fragile, and he will not allow Katniss to become a rallying figure for full revolution.
The first hour of Catching Fire plays out on this victory tour, as Katniss tries half-heartedly to play her role as government shill, but keeps spotting (and inadvertently seeding) signs of rebellion. This section may make the action-junkies impatient, but Catching Fire does a good job of capturing how the mood of the nation has slightly changed since Katniss undermined the 74th Annual Hunger Games. It is a fair criticism of both the books and the films that this dystopian future is a little under-imagined, and more than a little unrealistic: partially due to the limited point-of-view of our protagonist—and partially because of the sheer volume of material Francis Lawrence must get through here—the brief glimpses we get of the various districts provide little insight into what life is really like in this society: we are left with the impression that neither the citizenry nor the government has anything to think about except the Hunger Games.
But that conceit is also what makes it possible to believe that Katniss could become a surly symbol of hope, a reluctant Joan of Arc destined to lead her people to overthrow their oppressors. And Jennifer Lawrence makes us believe it as well: as in the books (which Katniss narrates), nearly everything we see is from Katniss's point-of-view, and channeled through her emotions, and none of it would work at all if we didn't care about her and find her sympathetic. Lawrence—who already has two Oscar nominations and one trophy at the age of 24—is only getting better, and her restrained, fully authentic performance would easily carry much weaker material than this. Much has already been said—on this site and elsewhere—about what a fantastic protagonist Katniss is: a strong, complicated young woman who is neither saint, sexual object, nor superhero, and one who is neither defined by nor dependent on the men in her life. (That her two "love-interests"—Peeta and Gale [Liam Hemsworth]—are both underwritten is both a valid criticism of the franchise and a refreshing change of pace: pretty, simple, and frequently in need of rescue, Peeta and Gale are fulfilling the traditionally "female" roles in this story, reversing gender stereotypes by existing comfortably on the periphery of Katniss's tale.)
The story outside of the arena goes on long enough that anyone genuinely unspoiled might think Catching Fire will never return to the actual games, and it's a shame—albeit an understandable one—that the trailers and commercials have been so free with images of Katniss once again fighting for her life. In a twist—one that, I confess, did surprise me in the book—it is announced that the tributes for the 75th Annual Hunger Games—the third anniversary "Quarter Quell"—will be chosen from the existing pool of previous victors. Soon, Peeta and Katniss are being sent back to the hi-tech thunder-dome, where 24 contestants enter and only one is supposed to leave. It's a believably evil tactic on the part of the government—seeking to squash the spirit of rebellion these particular victors have inspired—and a clever way for Collins to get her hero back in the main event.
I'm not going to spoil any more surprises, but those who fear that this film is simply more of the same should be reassured: Catching Fire does suffer, a little, from repetition, as Katniss and Peeta go through many of the same dance steps in preparation for a return to the arena: there are the arguments with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, once again enjoying himself enjoyably), consultations with the sage designer Cinna (Lennie Kravitz), and interviews with TV personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, delighting in the taste of the scenery). But the repetition is necessary, for the pleasures of these scenes are to be found in their subtle deviations from the first movie: all the people of Panem—from the sullen crowds to the other tributes to Katniss's own handlers—are starting to bristle against the heavy hand of the government, and so a new tone creeps into these now familiar notes. Particularly good is Elizabeth Banks, whose Effie Trinket slowly evolves from the vapid cheerleader she was in The Hunger Games to Katniss and Peeta's conflicted, and then conspiratorial, ally. And even Tucci's maniacally upbeat showman begins to let some subtle shadows and doubt creep into his performance. (A welcome new addition is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, who counters the overall absurdity—and his own character's ridiculous name—with a calm, carefully underplayed performance.)
From a pure action-movie standpoint, the titular games are an improvement on those in the previous movie: the arena here is a much more colorful and fiendishly-designed environment—full of clever and entertainingly various threats—and the players are a much more interesting lot. (Notable are Jena Malone's angry, confrontational Johanna; Jeffrey Wright's brilliantly quiet Beetee; and Sam Claffin's Finnick Odair, a handsome rogue who has—sad to say—much more chemistry with Lawrence's Katniss than she has with either of her purported suitors.) The ways these games play out differently from the previous ones keep the second half of the film fresh and intriguing, and Francis Lawrence films the action scenes with a much cleaner, more choreographed style, generating some genuine scares, thrills, and surprises.
At the same time, however, I still regret some of the changes, which seem to play more willingly into the voyeurism and thirst for violence that are at the heart of the Hunger Games but should be anathema to The Hunger Games. Gary Ross approached the violence more reluctantly, and more uncertainly, never celebrating the notion of making children fight to the death. Catching Fire's director Francis Lawrence, on the other hand, caters more to the common but—in this context, particularly—highly questionable desire to see awesome fight scenes. It has an effect on characterization, as well: though Jennifer Lawrence's performance never wavers, the way she is filmed here makes her less of a genuine human being and more of a superhero: Francis Lawrence likes his "hero shots," carefully and dramatically posing Katniss and her bow, and he likes shooting her whirling around at superhuman speed, dispatching foes with uncanny accuracy. A bit of the realism is lost, a bit of her touching humanity is sacrificed, and a bit of the franchise's moral high-ground is surrendered.
And—without giving anything away—there are troubling aspects of Collins' story that begin to creep into Catching Fire. Here, there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes of these games that Katniss herself doesn't understand, which help generate suspense and intrigue but arguably begin to undermine her status as a strong, self-directed feminist character. This dilemma will only become more pronounced in the forthcoming adaptations of the problematic third novel, Mockingjay (which—wisely or not—is being split into two films). It will be interesting to see if Francis Lawrence can temper some of the more dispiriting elements of the third act, satisfy the audiences who primarily enjoy this franchise as an action-adventure story, and stay true to what is ultimately the profoundly anti-violence message of Suzanne Collins' story.
Still, that's next year's challenge: for now, my quibbles aside, Catching Fire is a rousing success, thanks to Francis Lawrence's deft hand with this unwieldy material, and—most of all—Jennifer Lawrence's intelligent, complicated performance, which culminates in a wordless but stunning final shot that captures the latest quantum leap in Katniss's continued evolution. This is—make no mistake—the second act of a three-act story, and so builds to an exciting but uncertain stopping point, not to a pat resolution of the plot. "You fought very hard in the games," President Snow tells Katniss, early in the film. "But those were games. Would you like to be in a real war?" It is a remarkable achievement that, at the end of Catching Fire's two-and-a-half hours, we are not tired of games, but anxious and excited for the war still to come.