Once upon a time, sequels used to do little more than regurgitate whatever happened in the first film. That bar has been raised over the years and now people often reasonably expect Part Two to outpace Part One (thankyouverymuchChristopherNolan). The new Hunger Games movie somehow manages to do both at the same time. On the surface, it sticks closely to the pattern of the first picture, with another brutal gladiatorial match instigated at the behest of a dystopian future government. Only now it goes much further in connecting that future to our present. The results aptly demonstrate the difference between a serviceable motion picture and one that flirts with brilliance.
As with the original Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence acts as the straw that stirs the drink. I still believe she’s a tad overrated, but her Katniss Everdeen remains as strong and indomitable as ever. In a cinematic landscape where genuine female role models have all but vanished from the screen, it’s refreshing to see her hold us even more rapt than she did the first time around. The Hunger Games compliments her by refusing to treat her as a sex object, and indeed the first half of the movie has some bold things to say about how easily we can be manipulated by pleasurable media facades.
After surviving the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss and her would-be lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are paraded around for the edification of the masses, as part of a concentrated effort by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to keep a lid on a percolating rebellion. Instead, she seems to be fueling the unrest, partially by design but mostly because her innate decency prevents her from being the pawn they want her to be. Director Francis Lawrence takes us step by step through the bad guys’ calculated media manipulation… manipulation separated from our world’s only by the type of technology used. Catching Fire savagely critiques the cult of thin as well, and the way that the public can be so easily distracted by the triviality of spectacle and melodrama.
Add to that the growing political unrest, and suddenly you have a sci-fi epic worth paying attention to. Eager to nip Katniss’s symbolic potential in the bud, Snow arranges for a new round of Games, this one featuring survivors of the previous years. It basically serves as a victory lap for the first film, only now with the larger political picture in context as well as some new threats on the battlefield that make for some of the better action sequences this year. The new depth and complexity carries the real juice, however, for as the Games continue, we’re aware of the moves and countermoves that signal the higher stakes involved.
Because of that, this Hunger Games feels richer and more detailed than the first. It allows the central themes to flourish while keeping the soapy elements to a minimum, combined with sharp political commentary that has never felt more pertinent. It would have been easy to coast with this one. Everyone’s going to see it anyway, so why put in any extra effort? Thankfully, Lawrence and his cast (which includes the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Stanley Tucci, both brilliant) are keeping the long game in mind, and it won’t do to simply rest on their laurels. For the first time, I understand what has caught so many people’s attention with this series, and thanks to a masterfully placed cliffhanger ending, I’m already eager to see the new entry next year. It takes real filmmaking to pull that off. Real filmmaking and an understanding of why these books have sold as well as they do. Catching Fire plays the same old game, only with improved skill and a lot more excitement. We, the sometimes skeptical audience now reap the full rewards.