If you liked the first “Hunger Games” film, you’re bound to enjoy the second installment, “Catching Fire.” Many of the same elements are in place; it deliberately plays like a retread of the first story at first, with our heroes forced to repeat history and play the deadly Hunger Games again by a nervous dictatorship that really doesn’t like the way people in the subjugated Districts are flashing Katniss Everdeen a three-finger salute and whistling her theme song. Before long Katniss and her fake-but-maybe-not boyfriend Peeta are suiting up for a clever all-stars version of the Games (just like modern-day reality shows always have an all-star season sooner or later, except this also serves the evil government’s goal of liquidating Katniss and the rest of the celebrity Games survivors.)
But things are different this time, too. Whatever other inspirations the “Hunger Games” series draws upon – from “Survivor,” to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film version of “The Running Man,” to the Japanese cult classic that author Suzanne Collins claims she never saw, “Battle Royale” – at its best it’s a meditation on the way fear and hope can be used by tyrants to subjugate the masses. The mix must be perfect. Too much fear, and the surly populace will rebel, either violently or through work stoppages. (As the second movie archly notes, the evil and flamboyant ruling class of the futuristic nation of Panem eats a lot, and the people in the Districts are the source of their raw materials.) Too much hope is the problem caused by Katniss and Peta winning their Hunger Games in a way that made them look defiant, inspiring the early stages of a revolution.
As the nasty old piece of work who runs Panem quickly realizes (as played with terrific levels of sour venom by a terrifying Donald Sutherland), simply killing our heroes would make martyrs of them, and possibly kick off the full-blown civil war he’s trying to avoid. The evil President and his oily new gamesmaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman, bringing his “A” game as always) have some fascinating conversations about the right way to manipulate Katniss’ public image to the government’s advantage. We see more of the rich and dissolute Capitol this time, and soon get the idea that it might have been a mistake for the dictators to let their elite citizens identify so strongly with the Hunger Games victors. Media can distract the masses, but sometimes it also brings people together.
The all-star Hunger Games start of similar to what we saw last time, but quickly become different, until rules are getting rewritten all over the place. The ending can be faulted for telling about some things that should have been shown, but it’s intriguing – and will of course build audience appetites for the last installment in the series, which will be broken into two films – to wonder what’s happening in the world outside the Hunger Games arena as things spin madly out of control. There was a cold, brutal logic to the Games as they were portrayed in the first film. As they unravel, the civilization built upon them will collapse. The rebellious types might not have thought that all the way through, just as horrid old President Snow didn’t think far enough ahead when he signed onto the all-star games concept.
This isn’t just a philosophy seminar, though. The second film outdoes its predecessor in almost every way, giving all the returning characters much more to do, including a surprising amount of character development for the seemingly vapid hostess played by Elizabeth Banks. The action scenes are better choreographed, with none of the dreaded shaky-cam, and there are some spectacular visual effects.
And Jennifer Lawrence is better than ever as Katniss, a grounded, believable reluctant hero who just wants to survive and protect her family and friends. The second chapter of the “Hunger Games” story is about her becoming more than just a survivor. Lawrence helps sell that transition as a graceful process fraught with terror. She also sells Part Three more effectively than any teaser trailer could, with nothing more than a silent but incredibly powerful change of her facial expression. No one else could do what she does for these movies; she’s one of the most brilliant casting decisions ever made.