It takes some guts to make a “Hunger Games” movie and then make the audience wait 80-plus minutes for said competition to get going, but “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” makes that gamble pay off brilliantly.
This second installment of the film series based on the novels by Suzanne Collins hits all the bases for a genre movie — whether you’re there for thrills, romance or even sociopolitical commentary, you’ll come away satisfied.
Of course, second chapters have it easy since the first movie does all the heavy lifting of establishing the world and its inhabitants, but that’s not the only reason “Catching Fire” seems like a step up from the perfectly fine “The Hunger Games.” Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) takes over the directorial reins, with Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael deBruyn (a pseudonym for “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Toy Story 3” writer Michael Arndt) handling script duties, and what results is a film that keeps a multitude of thematic plates spinning.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are set to tour the districts as their victory lap for having won the 74th Hunger Games, even though the trip involves rubbing their win in the noses of the family and friends of the fallen contestants from the other sectors. The intimidating President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pays a personal visit to Katniss, reminding her that her for-show romance with Peeta is the only thing keeping the two of them alive, and that she had better step up their fake affection while in public.
What’s really bothering Snow is that Katniss has become a symbol of hope for the oppressed, and even when she’s sticking to the official script, her very presence becomes a beacon of revolt. In an attempt to keep her and her fellow champions in line, Snow and new games planner Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) put a twist into the 75th Hunger Games, using the every-25-years “Quarter-Quell” as an excuse to turn the existing victors into the pool of new contestants.
As District 12’s only female victor, Katniss is automatically selected, but Peeta steps up and volunteers in the place of boozy coach Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Forced to train once again at the capitol, Katniss and Peeta find themselves facing off against an even deadlier crew of opponents — although, now that all the players have nothing to lose, what with their lives on the line a second time, the new Games could become the crucible for revolution against the oppressive state.
There are any number of readings available here, from Katniss and Peeta’s relationship mirroring generations of Hollywood stars (closeted and otherwise) with fake publicity marriages, to the oppression of the working classes by the greedy 1%, to the vagaries and dangers of instant fame, to bread and circuses, and “Catching Fire” allows viewers to dig into or avoid the metaphors as much as they want. On its face, we still have the compelling relationships — Katniss’ love for Gale (Liam Hemsworth) continues, although in the line of fire she discovers her feelings for Peeta aren’t entirely fictional — and a richer sense of characterization this time around.
Either Elizabeth Banks’ bizarrely overdressed flack and Stanley Tucci’s unctuous TV host are being played more subtly, or real life is catching up to the absurdity of their characters, but they’re much more interesting to watch this time around. Lawrence, of course, grounds the film with her intensity and her passion, and Hutcherson and Willow Shields (as Primrose) get to be more complex and multi-dimensional this time as well.
Backing them up are several worthy new additions to the cast: besides Hoffman, we get Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen and Jena Malone as new competitors.
Some ideas get raised that, sadly, aren’t pursued — Katniss clearly has PTSD from her experiences in the previous Games, and Snow and Heavensbee hatch a plot to turn public sentiment against Katniss by basically turning her into a Kardashian — but at 146 minutes (which fly by), the movie has no dead spaces. Even this second go-round of the Hunger Games themselves feels excitingly different, with Heavensbee lobbing everything from poisonous fog to killer simians at the combatants.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” serves up food for thought and jolts of adrenaline in equal doses, which is more than most YA adaptations have managed to deliver. Dismiss it as a popcorn movie if you must, but at least they’ve bothered to serve it with real butter and truffle salt.