“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” lacks some of the freshness of 2012’s “Hunger Games.” Yet it compensates by cultivating a mood that’s consistently oppressive but also engaging and never devoid of hope.
Mood is everything to the “Games” films, which must translate into visual terms Suzanne Collins’ descriptions of brutal acts without alienating the fan base for her young-adult “Games” book trilogy. Maintaining a PG-13 rating is not easy when your heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), competes in battles to the death forced upon her by a cruel, post-apocalyptic government.
“Fire” director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) follows the lead of the first film’s director, Gary Ross, by cutting away from – or otherwise suggesting instead of directly showing – the most heinous moments of violence. (The most graphic scenes in “Fire,” which returns Katniss to the Games arena, are human-on-baboon, not human-on-human).
This approach can seem coy. But “Fire” maintains such a consistent dystopian vision by other means – from fine performances to its accomplished production design – that the stakes of Katniss’ increasingly complex journey are evident even when its violence is obscured.
Such attention to detail keeps the audience involved during a nearly 2 ½-hour film that consists of much lead-up and a modest amount of action.
“Fire” picks up with Katniss and sweetheart-for-the-cameras Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), back from their joint Games win in the glamorous Capitol and living again in their desolate home district, District 12. Katniss, her mother and younger sister have left their shack for a new home in the district’s “Victors’ Village.”
The spoils within the village are not especially impressive. The government now guarantees Katniss’ family food and an income, but the village looks as bleak as the rest of District 12, its brownish cast offset only slightly by snow on the ground. (These scenes were shot in the U.S. state of Georgia, but it looks more like 1980s Soviet Georgia).
Katniss and Peeta soon are forced to embark on a “victory tour” of other struggling districts, all of which sent young “tributes” to their deaths in the Hunger Games as required by law. Peeta and Katniss travel via a luxurious train sent by the 1-percenter-filled Capitol, which reaps resources from districts without returning the favor.
The physical differences between the Capitol and the districts no longer seem as stark as in the first film. The less-gleaming visuals in “Fire” reflect Katniss’ outlook. To Katniss, who survived a fight to the death, the slick Capitol and dirt-smudged districts equal the same things: subjugation and death.
Katniss was 16 when she left for the Hunger Games. “Fire” makes no mention of age, to the story’s and to Lawrence’s benefit. At 23, Lawrence no longer looks like a teen, her face having lost its cherubic quality. And there’s no forgetting the worldy wiseness she displayed in her Oscar-winning performance in “Silver Linings Playbook,” and that she shows in interviews.
In “Fire,” it translates to an appropriate world-weariness, a quality that allows Katniss to be made up like Cleopatra without batting a heavily mascaraed eyelash. It’s all part of surviving.
In the first film, Katniss was savvy and rebellious yet still capable of being wowed by the perks granted Games contestants, like a buffet on the train. In “Fire,” Katniss has been to hell and back and is impervious to luxury.
Her clear loss of innocence is sad, but the steel that replaced it is a practical tool.
Katniss’ new maturity hampers the love-triangle subplot established in the first film. Katniss seems cozy back in District 12 with hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth, handsome and still waiting in vain for his character to develop). But she tells him, in a too-pat moment, that she cannot think of romance when her life is so complicated.
Perhaps the moment is meant to buoy Katniss-Peeta shippers who want the romance to be real. But Hutcherson, though likable, is so subdued for much of “Fire” that only his shimmery tunic keeps him from fading into the scenery.
Katniss’ and Peeta’s supposed love story convinced so well during the televised Games that they won over Capitol sophisticates. Their threat, as the Games’ final two contestants, of a joint suicide – and the denial of a winner for the government to parade around – won points for audacity in the districts.
During the victory tour, Katniss’ presence, intended by the government to mollify the masses, instead incites rebellions. The district inhabitants can see Katniss’ inherent authenticity even when she’s spouting the party line.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland, quietly evil) and his new game maker (Philip Seymour Hoffman, alternately snaky and inscrutable) hatch a plan that can eliminate Katniss without simply murdering her: An all-star Hunger Games to be fought by previous winners. Sort of like “Survivor: All Stars,” but with more PTSD.
This is bad news for Katniss, but great for the audience because her fellow champions fascinate. British actor Sam Claflin invests Finnick, a trident-wielding heartthrob from a seaside district, with great charisma but also unexpected emotional depth. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer add eccentricity as an electricity expert and his brilliant but shaky companion.
Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci ably reprise their standout roles from the first film. As Peeta’s and Katniss’ government-appointed chaperone, Effie, Banks counters her character’s PR-shill sunniness with sincere worry for her charges. Over the course of two films, Harrelson has ushered Haymitch – District 12’s only other champion – from drunk, reluctant chaperone to true mentor to Katniss and Peeta.
Tucci once again personifies smarm as host of the Capitol’s TV “entertainment” program, during which he interviews contestants before they are sent to slaughter.
The all-star Games, when they finally start, hold visual wonders and the added investment of several characters whose fates matter to the audience. But the thought of deviously designed obstacles around every corner holds less tension here. Mostly because we know Katniss and even the oft-injured Peeta surmounted such obstacles in the first film.
Yet “Fire” is good enough to instill hope that the “Games” franchise – the final two installments, drawn from Collins’ third book, “Mockingjay,” arrive in 2014 and 2015 – is the “Harry Potter” movie series of its day. Though some “Potter” films outshone others, there was not a dud in the bunch.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
* * *
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson
Director: Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13 (violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)