It’s fair to show up for the second of these Hunger Games movies and feel confused. Girls are shrieking — for scrappy Peeta and hunky Gale and the recently arrived pretty boy, Finnick; for every kiss Katniss Everdeen plants on one of them; for the scene in which a brazen new Hunger Games contestant, played by Jena Malone, enters an elevator, strips naked, arrives at her floor, then exits. It’s an amusingly frisky encounter, and it happens only hours before 24 people are dropped, by the government, into an artificial war zone and expected to slay each other for the nation’s entertainment. So it’s confusing. How can a movie be this good when it brings George Orwell so close to Aaron Spelling? Because it brings George Orwell this close to Aaron Spelling, that’s how.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is based on the middle entry in Suzanne Collins’s trio of dystopic novels. And it isn’t the threat of camp that makes this second movie an improvement over its interesting but stultifying 2012 predecessor. It’s the threat of insurgency and reprisal. This new movie makes you believe that it’s building toward something explosive and that whatever it is (revolution, apocalypse, consummation) matters for the movie’s characters. This is Empire Strikes Back stuff. It has that second Star Wars movie’s kick of confidence. In fact, the final image made me consider doing something I’ve never wanted to do with any of these franchise series: start standing in line for the next two. (Yes, Lionsgate is on-trend; the final book has been split in half.)
In Collins’s novel, the United States as we know it has been obliterated. The new country, called Panem, is now comprised of a dozen districts of varying poverty ruled by the Capitol, a bastion of excess, opulence, technological advancement, and cruelty nestled, we’re told, amid the Rocky Mountains. As punishment for a long-ago uprising, the Capitol instituted the annual Hunger Games, in which every district drafts two tweens or teens (they’re called tributes) to fight to the death on live television. There can be only one victor, except in the first movie, in which there were two. Catching Fire begins with the winners — Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — visiting the towns of the young players they vanquished. It’s the Tribute to the Tributes eulogy tour.
The thrust of the new movie is that mean, old President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears how much the Panemanians identify with Katniss, who took the place of her younger sister in the 74th games. Maybe she could start a revolution that topples the Capitol. In one of the most strangely loaded scenes I’ve seen in any movie all year, Katniss offers her condolences to the families of the two black tributes. When she’s done, one old man raises his arm and extends three fingers. It’s Collins’s salute of revolution. But here it has an unmistakable black power tinge. The Capitol’s military storm troopers promptly blow his brains out. Later, they lock Katniss’s strapping white boyfriend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), to a whipping post and lash him. The easy use of oppression iconography is disturbing without being sensationalistic or egregious. It helps that, in some theaters, 12 Years a Slave will be playing in the house next door, lessening the likelihood that what happened to Gale will be mistaken for science fiction.
In any case, to further punish Katniss and calm the people, President Snow calls for a very special Hunger Games: the third Quarter Quell. Two of each district’s previous winners lose their promised immunity and are thrown into a new round of killing. For a lot of the movie, President Snow, bearded, maned, and gray (he looks like the stone lion that’s stationed outside important buildings), sits around with Plutarch Heavensbee, the flagrantly named new game designer played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. These two are cartoon villains who don’t know they’re cartoons. So, as they plot how to discredit Katniss, if not destroy her outright, you can feel your blood boil. They hate her. We hate them.
Collins writes in a manner friendly to movies. The ball is on the tee for a filmmaker to knock it out of the park. But you have to believe in the material for it to work. The first film, which Gary Ross adapted and directed, was both rushed and logy. He was either too close to this assignment or not close enough. So you could feel that awful, modern creative phenomenon that compromises, if not ruins, so much mass movie entertainment: the pressure to please both the readers and the bean counters at the studio. With the first film, you never felt that you were watching a movie. Francis Lawrence, the director of Catching Fire, is a smarter choice, because what you need with a film like this is an egoless visualist. This is Collins’s show. Why complicate that? Lawrence came to prominence as a midtier music video director. He wasn’t an auteur in the David Fincher–Hype Williams–Michel Gondry sense, but he did handsome, flattering work. It was the same story at the movies (Constantine, Water for Elephants, the very good I Am Legend). If there’s a problem with his movies, it’s not at all how they look.
For Catching Fire, Lawrence makes every shot look deliberate and expensive. He understands what, say, low angles and less editing can do for, say, Elizabeth Banks, who plays Katniss and Peeta’s flamboyant chaperone. She’s built a real, brittle character out of eye rolls, throwaway lines, and the amazing costumes of Trish Summerville, who should take a bow at the end of almost every scene (the clothes are inspired by the likes of Rick Owens, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood). Seeing the kabuki body language Banks has come up with adds new comedy to her performance. No longer does she seem like a nightmare drag queen. Standing out amid the dirt and drabness of Katniss’s coal-mining district, she seems like an affluent woman wearing layers of institutional denial. Lawrence’s years of shooting Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette, Destiny’s Child, Shakira, and Jennifer Lopez serve him well here. He knows where to put the camera and trusts his actors do their jobs. There are a few memorable close-ups, but there are also a number of group shots in which each person in the frame gets to tell a piece of the story simply by how they lean or cock their head. This might not sound like much. But how much filmmaking can you recall in any of the Twilight movies?
Lawrence didn’t write this film. The sharp, navigable, frequently funny script is credited to Simon Beaufoy (assorted Danny Boyle movies, including Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3, Brave). Neither of them was crazy enough to overthink this. Collins has done the strategizing and has espoused a worldview. They just have to realize it. The new filmmakers have a great advantage over Ross, who struggled to set things up and make the killing spree something you’d dread watching as opposed to merely a chore to sit through. To be fair, no one short of the Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku would leap at the chance to make a movie in which 24 kids knock each other off. So the first film had to cheat, and the cheating made things stultifying. I always wanted to know what the ratings were for the 74th games. Who’d sit through night after night of that?
The advantage of this second film is that the participants of the third Quarter Quell are mostly adults, including Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Lynn Cohen. Back from the first movie are Woody Harrelson, as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor; Lenny Kravitz, as her wardrobe specialist; and Stanley Tucci, as the intensely shallow Hunger Games emcee. And it’s this collection of good actors taking their roles just seriously enough that helps you take the movie seriously. This isn’t something a 14-year-old would care about — for them there’s Malone and Sam Claflin as the pathological flirts Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair — but there’s a big difference between watching child actors think about what it means to kill and how a grown-up veteran performs that ambivalence. Adding Wright, Plummer, and Hoffman to the mix raises the stakes. It’s true that the televised Hunger Games passage — with its killer baboons, toxic fog, and other deadly contraptions — makes no sense after the movie’s big plot twist. But it’s suspenseful and exciting thanks to the ingenuity of the writing, the characters, and the actors playing them.
Of course, if we’re being honest, Jennifer Lawrence is all wrong for this part. Katniss isn’t quite passive, but she gathers strength, cunning, and fearlessness as she goes. Lawrence comes preassembled with those traits. She’s all bravery — here emphasizing the character’s fierce protective instincts. In all her roles, she’s best when she’s charging at you, either physically or emotionally. There’s nothing yet that’s internal about her. The key to her stardom is the reckless bluntness that was always Julia Roberts’s secret weapon. So a movie about a woman whose directness is being suppressed doesn’t cry out for Lawrence. But she wasn’t a star when she took this part, she was lucky. And we get it: The Capitol is threatening the lives of Katniss’s family and everyone else she loves. But now you watch Lawrence and wonder why she doesn’t just tell President Snow to go fuck himself. That, of course, is the thrill of the film’s cliffhanger of a final shot. You believe she will.