Anyone who felt that the workmanlike adaptation of the first “Hunger Games” missed the bull’s-eye, take heart. “Catching Fire” is the new “The Empire Strikes Back,” a smashing sci-fi sequel that takes its blockbuster franchise into deeper, smarter, more dramatically engaging territory.
New director Francis Lawrence has a solid grasp of science fiction (as demonstrated in “Constantine” and “I Am Legend”) and romance (proven with “Water for Elephants”). The conflicts are clear, the characters fully fleshed, the lethal adventure urgent and the tender interludes poignant.
Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers, set in a fascist North America after a civil war and the extinction of the middle class, are a potent sociopolitical allegory. In dystopian Panem (Latin for “bread,” a nod to the Roman Empire’s policy of distracting citizens with food and circuses) young warriors must kill each other to survive. The battles are packaged as gladiatorial reality shows designed to keep the populace disengaged and submissive. The spectacle is undeniably impressive. An attack against players on a tropical island by a troop of ferocious mandrills tops anything I’ve seen this year for sheer get-me-out-of-here chills.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a stoic rural teenager who entered the Games in the first film to save her younger sister from certain death in combat. The role showcases Lawrence’s uncanny ability to make a tiny, apprehensive furrow of the brow speak volumes, and to tackle bigger-than-life scenes without going over the top. No matter how many times she’s called on to display desperation and resolve (and it’s a lot of times), Lawrence makes it fresh and convincing. She can pulverize you with a glance.
Having survived the first round of reality-TV carnage, Katniss has become a national celebrity. Her public life is scripted as a romantic fantasy and played out for countless TV viewers. Katniss, a coal miner’s daughter, hates the pretense and glitz of stardom. She resists play-acting a manufactured faux-romance with her Games teammate/pretend boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), That reluctance adds tension and irony to the slow-burning attraction between the two survivors offstage.
Her unprecedented popularity has made Katniss a political figure representing underclass hopes. Concerned that she could become the figurehead for an uprising, President Snow (silky, evil Donald Sutherland) orders his games designer to create a competition that will eliminate her and ruin her heroic reputation in the process. Plutarch Heavensbee (inscrutable, calculating Philip Seymour Hoffman) proposes “what we designers call a wrinkle,” an All-Star Game featuring the survivors of earlier combats. When the action moves to the arena, unexpected alliances and hidden agendas reveal a hedge-maze of new wrinkles.
Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael Arndt (“Oblivion”), director Lawrence leavens this fundamentally serious movie with bleak, caustic satire. Stanley Tucci returns as soulless TV host Caesar Flickerman, whose awesomely stilted stage presence raises insincerity to high art. Elizabeth Banks wears ever more bizarre couture as Katniss and Peeta’s image consultant; one memorable outfit is composed of monarch butterflies.
It takes skilled filmmaking to walk the line between ghastly realism and cranked-up absurdity, and this movie has the creative vitality to make both aspects of the story work. There’s a clarity and purpose to every shot. Stunning retro-futuristic set and costume designs draw a vivid line between the worlds of decadence and deprivation.
In contrast to the overblown, artificial pomp of the capital city, the film’s real, melancholy beauty appears whenever Katniss returns to her hardscrabble home district. Katniss’ contempt for the Darwinian backstabbing of the entertainment/government cabal meshes nicely with Lawrence’s real-life anti-Hollywood pronouncements. On every level, this movie works. I was entertained by the first “Games” film. This one gripped me.