The second novel in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire, has the blobbiest narrative, but it’s an honorable effort: Collins takes the time and space to mourn the dead kids (22 of them) from the lean, mean first book, and she widens the scope with the initial stirrings of revolution against a Fascist government that pits children against children in an annual televised bloodbath. You’d expect Catching Fire to be misshapen onscreen, too, and a comedown—except The Hunger Games was relentlessly misdirected by Gary Ross, with his tiresomely indiscriminate handheld camera and inability to wring much emotion from child murder. Relatively speaking, Catching Fire is terrific. Even nonrelatively, it’s pretty damn good.
The new director, Francis Lawrence, and co-screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy (Danny Boyle’s frequent collaborator), front-load Catching Fire with anguish. Back in her impoverished home district, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss takes aim at a flock of wild turkeys and nails a human being—Marvel (Jack Quaid), who died in the first movie. It’s a vision, of course: It reminds her she’s a killer. There’s a heavy pall over the action—and an awful duty. Twin victors Katniss and her pretend boyfriend, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are forced to tour the districts and pay tribute to “the Capitol,” closely monitored by the saturnine President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who’d love to put them six (preferably 60) feet under. He tells Katniss that some of the populace viewed the “little trick” that saved both her and Peeta from death at the end of The Hunger Games as “an act of defiance, not love.” For the moment he needs them to dampen the fires of revolution. Katniss has become a symbol—the Mockingjay—and her wings must be clipped.
The vibe is martial and chill. The Imperial Roman–like Capitol has a frightening splendor; it teems with helmeted Star Wars–like troopers in formidable (muscular) breastplates. The new Hunger Games overseer is Plutarch Heavensbee (the name: hate it!), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose low-key, pragmatic delivery makes the evil even scarier. He and Snow arrive at the diabolical plan of tapping Katniss and Peeta for a special Hunger Games, this time featuring victors from previous years in an especially spectacular fight to the death.
A second Hunger Games. A bigger Death Star. Another shrubbery. Okay, there’s not a lot of invention there. The government’s machinations are a mite confusing, the whys and hows of the new game murky, and the thinking behind Katniss’s desire to sacrifice herself for Peeta a head-scratcher. In the latter case, the fault might lie with Hutcherson, whose face doesn’t draw the camera—he’s tight and inexpressive—and who gets no help from his director. But Lawrence (Francis, not Jennifer) does well with the film’s mighty set pieces. A scene in which Katniss trains by shooting arrows into oncoming cyberfoes composed of flaming blocks is rousingly well done. Katniss’s self-immolating wedding gown on the eve of the Games is a gorgeous effect. Used judiciously this time, the handheld camera in the Hunger Games amps up the terror immeasurably—especially in a sequence featuring killer baboons that’s shot and edited (and presumably computer-generated) with ferocious skill.
As ever, Lawrence (Jennifer) is a treat, her face is that of a warrior who kills in sorrow rather than anger. Her new Cleopatra look is most becoming. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale remains deadwood, but Woody Harrelson doesn’t phone it in this time as that cunning sot, Haymitch; Lenny Kravitz half-suggests (as opposed to never suggesting) the scintillating presence that is the wardrobe-meister Cinna; and Elizabeth Banks adds plaintive, human notes to the drag-queen-like busybody Effie Trinket. Stanley Tucci returns—huzzah!—as the prime-time pageant’s emcee, Caesar, and it’s a masterly study in calculating camp: Caesar capers with one beady eye on his government masters. The new additions are even more fun. Jeffrey Wright (dotty brainiac) and Amanda Plummer (dottier seer) make an adorable team, and Jena Malone gets a role that’s worthy of her prickly charm as the Hunger Games’s emo girl, Johanna, who’s royally pissed off at having to return to the arena. As the enigmatic contestant Finnick Odair, the Brit Sam Claflin supplies all kinds of subtext: Is he a popinjay, a devious Loki, or a Dear Sweet Boy? Brits (the males) can pull off that sort of role in their sleep, because they tend to be all of the above.
It’s too bad that, like its predecessor, Catching Fire doesn’t convey the full horror and injustice of each combatant’s death at the moment of killing. That’s what you feel in a great war movie, whereas, in the end, The Hunger Games trilogy is just good dystopian pulp. It’s likely that the violence has so little sting because of the studio’s need for a PG-13 rating, which has the paradoxical effect of making murder less upsetting and therefore more family friendly. (Bring the kids, why don’t you?) It’s also, of course, that in Catching Fire, the killers and killed are of age. Rightly or wrongly, once they can legally drink, they’re action fodder and fair game. At least Jennifer Lawrence does nothing casually. Her face conveys what PG-13 keeps offscreen.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire directed by Francis Lawrence. Lionsgate. PG-13.
*This article originally appeared in the November 25, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.