What a difference a new director makes. When it was announced that Suzanne Collins’ phenomenally popular The Hunger Games was being translated to the big screen, fans complained that mainstream dramatist Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) didn’t have the necessary genre chops to helm this allegorical look at a dystopian society forcing its children to battle to the death for entertainment/distraction purposes. In the end, he did deliver at least some of the goods, but after watching what someone with some sci-fi skill can do with the material, Gamers should be glad Ross bolted.
Francis Lawrence, who brought Constantine and I Am Legend to life, clearly has the necessary future shock sensibilities, and he makes Catching Fire, the middle act in Collins’ complicated mythology, soar like the source’s symbolic mockingjay. There are still problems with the premise, and there’s an overabundance of narrative here, but this time, the delivery trumps any troubles.
After winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (an amazing Jennifer Lawrence) and her devoted “boyfriend” Peeta Mellark (an equally convincing Josh Hutcherson) return to their home in District 12, only to find the seeds of revolution have been planted. Rumors that the supposedly destroyed District 13 still exists have made the have-nots in the rural areas of Panem angry at the haves in President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) fashion-challenged Capital. Hoping to harness Katniss’ popularity for his own aims, the despotic leader warns her about fueling any rebellion on the upcoming Games Victory Tour and threatens her family if she does.
While traveling from District to District, Katniss and Peeta see just how unsettled things are. When it’s clear that his star-crossed lovers angle won’t work anymore, the President asks new Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to come up with a novel way of dealing with his growing problem. The answer? Use the 75th Anniversary of the Games to bring back 24 previous victors, including Katniss, with the idea being that she will die playing. Things get complicated, however, when the past winners are split between those who want to fight each other, and those who want to fight the system.
Managing the rare accomplishment of leaving you wanting more (and this after two and a half hours of overstuffed storytelling), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the kind of experience you share with someone to explain away the franchise’s often unfathomable reputation. It offers up the best that Ms. Collins’ ideas have to offer without the young adult nonsense that stunted the first film. Yes, we still have to wade through the noxious love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and District 12 hunky-meat Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but the script counteracts this adolescent attraction with the introduction of several new and intriguing characters as well as added depth to those individuals already established. This is particularly true of our heroine’s inner circle. We get intriguing personality beats involving freakshow fashionista Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), past Victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and Katniss’ personal stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
But it’s the new faces that create the most interest. Hoffman’s Heavensbee is pitch perfect, a clever combination of deviousness and directness that really adds heft to The Hunger Games‘ sometimes dopey dynamics. Jenna Malone shows up as another past Victor, a viable threat with that most frightening of personal truths — a lack of family or friends back home to silence her sedition. Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright play a couple who won their version of the Games with brains, not brawn, while Sam Clalfin’s Finnick Odair argues against the competitors as meat-headed murderers. Oddly enough, the actual Games itself feel like an afterthought, a way of getting us from the Capital to the story’s conclusion without going overboard with exposition.
At the heart of this film is Lawrence’s wounded bird, a young lady learning that, sometimes, life drafts you into a duty you would normally avoid. Katniss may be lethal, but she’s also likable, and legitimately vulnerable. She’s the kind of character you would follow into any fray, played by someone who only amplifies such feelings. A new director may have brought Catching Fire back from the brink of Twilight like stupidity, but one thing is certain. Both Lawrences make the rest of this series a sure thing.