Francis Lawrence is a filmmaker I typically associate with bland proficiency, but “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”—which honestly required nothing more than that to be considered successful—is something truly remarkable. Easily the most sophisticated and thoughtful franchise film of 2013, Lawrence’s adaptation of the second novel in Suzanne Collins’ young adult series is all-things-to-all-people entertainment, a follow-up that intensifies the first film’s thrills while simultaneously developing its characters and, even more crucially, expanding its themes. The rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor, 'Catching Fire' tackles head-on the repercussions of the events of “The Hunger Games,” deepening Collins’ cinematic mythology even as it proves that teen-lit is more than capable of tackling complex ideas.
Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) returns as Katniss Everdeen, whose victory with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) at the Hunger Games has earned them the adoration of everyone in Panem—except for President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Blaming the duo’s rule-breaking romance for an emerging rebellion, Snow attempts to use their victory tour to restore order by reminding districts of the authority of the Capitol. But when that fails, Snow calls upon head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to engineer a twist forcing Katniss and Peeta to compete again, this time against other victors from the previous 25 competitions.
Sorting through would-be adversaries to find allies in a battle that none of the previous victors want to fight, Katniss begins to realize the significance of the uprising that she inadvertently started. But in order to survive, she and Peeta forge tenuous alliances with a handful of fierce warriors—and a handful of misfits—after Snow and Heavensbee create an arena that proves more dangerous than any of her potential foes.
It doesn’t hurt that the success of the film’s young stars mirrors that of their characters—although its production was preordained, 'Catching Fire' itself could have been just as much of a victory lap as the tour that Katniss and Peeta take after winning Hunger Games. But Panem’s growing fixation and obsession on the minutiae of their personal lives serves as an apt metaphor for our own cultural preoccupations, scrutinizing the behavior (especially bad) of celebrities while dehumanizing tragedies that unfold in the background. Of course, America isn’t yet Panem in literal terms, but both operate using a political system that disenfranchises the poor and narcotizes them with false hope while fortifying the disparity between haves and have-nots.
For a film that “should” be prioritizing love triangles and coming-of-age arcs, Lawrence’s deft emphasis on the juxtaposition between decadence and brutality feels all the more bracing. And at the same time, that love triangle actually achieves some emotional resonance—not because the filmmakers agonize over who’s most “right” for Katniss, but because she and her two would-be suitors are each fighting for what means something and is important to them. Selflessness, generosity and nobility are the hallmarks of these characters, rather than the petulance and possessiveness of (by comparison) the three knuckleheads at the center of the “Twilight” saga, and it’s easy to sympathize with them because their eyes are open and their priorities are right.
In an industry with no shortage of star wattage, Jennifer Lawrence burns like the sun, and makes stardom look miraculously easy without ever hinting at the possibility she’s coasting on charm. Katniss is an extraordinarily conflicted character who wears desperate pragmatism like an armor—not just against the world, but against her own vulnerability—and Lawrence breathes a fluid complexity into her decisions that makes her one of the strongest and most relatable female characters in recent memory. As Peeta, meanwhile, Hutcherson’s maturing talents achieve a parallelism with the character’s self-actualization, proving subtler and more self-aware with every resigned decision he makes on behalf of the people around him that he loves.
While Liam Hemsworth’s Gale finally feels like a worthy companion to the fiery independence of Katniss, Sam Claflin (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) provides an even worthier one as Finnick Odair, a roguishly handsome former Hunger Games victor who is too calculating to be trusted, but too marvelously charming to resist. His character’s decision to team up with a former mentor, the mute octogenarian Mags (Lynn Cohen), goes a long way to earn the audience’s sympathies, but Claflin eclipses his previous work with a magnetic presence and an emotional substance that marks him for great things going forward.
Sutherland and Hoffman are predictably—but not dismissively—wonderful in their respective roles, particularly as Snow’s internal desperation quietly mounts. But from Stanley Tucci’s day-glo smile as Caesar Flickerman to Elizabeth Banks’ poodle-topiary hairstyles, the film’s theatricality never overshadows either its ideas or its deeper resonance, and even with an expanding ensemble competing for screen time, each character gets a moment not just to shine but to define him- or herself in startlingly human terms.
Whatever lessons Francis Lawrence learned from his work on “Constantine” and “I Am Legend,” much less “Water For Elephants,” the lack of personal imprint in those films serves this 'Catching Fire' well—building his story from Collins’ blueprint with specificity, devotion and care. In fact, he’s almost loyal to a fault, in the sense that as architect of this “middle film” in the saga, he creates a glorious follow-up from its predecessor and a promising lead-in for what follows, without quite enabling it to stand on its own. But as the “Empire Strikes Back” of young adult adaptations, 'Catching Fire' is a monumental achievement, a massively entertaining crowd-pleaser that is thought-provoking and personally inspiring in all of the ways that it aspires to be. And even if it doesn’t quite wrap itself up in a way that immediately satisfies, there are considerably worse things that Lawrence could have done than make audiences immediately excited about the prospect of seeing another installment. [A-]