The thing to keep in mind about THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is that it suffers from being the middle installment of an established trilogy. Which is not to say its bad. Far from it. Its a dynamic and genuinely exciting adventure flick. Yet, for those who are unfamiliar with either the first installment, or the book on which it was based, seeing it without the backstory would be, I would think, an unsatisfying experience. Its also one that is easily remedied by, and worth the trouble of, watching the original, and then the settling in for a thumping good time.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is back in District 12, but rather than the coal-miners hovel from which she departed to take part in the eponymous games, she and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are living in the Victors Village, an upscale and pointedly deserted subdivision where said victors live in the sort of Federal-style splendor of which those in the districts can only dream. The victory, and the deaths of the 22 other participants are weighing heavily on Katniss, even though it has benefited her mother and sister, and the return has reunited her, secretly, with her true love Gale, (Liam Hemsworth). For the cameras, which have made them media stars, Katniss and Peeta feign the love that got them through the games, and which guarantees their continuing safety from the fascist government of Panem.
Alas, this is the second part of the three-installment story, and so things will deteriorate quickly for Katniss, Peeta, and the only other victor from District 12, the drunken but good-hearted Haymitch (Woody Harelson). A rebellion is brewing with Katniss as its unwitting figurehead, and the president of Panem (Donald Sutherland), is just worried enough about it to personally visit Katniss and silkily threaten her with amorphous, but dire, consequences if she doesnt toe the party line. With her beloved family at stake, not to mention Gales, Katniss doesnt bat an eye when agreeing, but theres something about her innate defiance that unsettles the President, and hence, the next games the 75th annual ones, wont find their tributes from the general populations of each district as is the custom, but rather from the pool of victors, making the battle all the more deadly, and Katniss more worried about Peeta than herself.
The return to the games is just different enough from that depicted in the last film to make it delightfully suspenseful, even for those of us who have read the book. Amanda Plummer as a past winner who babbles incessantly but not necessarily idiotically is both touching and funny. Sam Claflin as Finnick, an arrogant former winner with a soft filial spot for the elderly co-champion from his district, provides a fine contrasting tonic to Peetas incessant earnestness, while Jeffrey Wright as the tribute who is a tech-whiz with a master plan is suitably enigmatic about what hes really up to. The same is true of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the master of the games, presiding over the life and death of the gamers while trading platitudes rife with double-meanings with the President about what it all means.
The special effects are splendid; the direction emphatic when it needs to be, subtle when it doesnt. The capital, and the pre-games festivities are a study of insouciant decadence, as are the poignantly clueless media consultant Effie Trinket (played with unexpected depth by Elizabeth Banks beneath pounds of butterflies, or a tsunami of chiffon ruffles) and the plastic perfection of Stanley Tucci as the glib and smiling television host without a soul beneath the butterball brown of his tan and incandescent whiteness of his slightly too large teeth. The pitfalls of first adapting a book into a film, and second, adapting a middle book has been done nimbly enough. Not too much exposition of what has come before to weigh things down, but, on the other hand, less detail, little but a trident to hint at Finnicks aquatic upbringing, or in the way of political subtext, too. Not a fatal flaw, and one compensated for by the touches that remain, including the way the Presidents granddaughter has begun to wear her hair the way Katniss does. Much to the old mans disconcertment, and combining that with a truly shocking scene of a the summary execution by storm troopers of a district drone who has dared to make the silent sign of revolution while Katniss and Peeta make their carefully stage-managed victors grand district tour.
Yet for all that, the real emotional resonance is due exclusively to Lawrence, who moves through the film with an urgent determination that brings a visceral reality to even the most far-fetched of situations. Unsentimental (this is a woman who skinned a squirrel on screen last time), but fiercely loyal, she makes Katniss a Valkyrie who grows stronger in the face of heartbreak, and an opponent that would logically make the all-powerful President feel just a little less powerful, a little less sure of his mastery of the situation. Without Lawrence as Sutherlands foil, it would all fall apart.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE posits a future in which the blood-lust lurking in human nature is nurtured to both oppress the masses with fear, and placate the elite with a diversion from the less than friendly government that caters to them, at least for now. And yet, there is something in this thoughtful consideration that can, if you think about it too much, make you wonder what it is about us in the audience, who so enjoy the watching the peril of fictional characters. Do you need to get philosophical to enjoy this flick? Not at all, and most people wont. But kudos for a product of popular culture that can provoke that train of thought.