This summer, in preparation for Catching Fire, the sequel to the 2012 blockbuster The Hunger Games, CoverGirl revealed a limited-edition Capitol Couture tie-in line containing themed looks for each of Panem’s 12 Districts, ready-made palettes to recreate the makeup of one’s favorite tribute in the Hunger Games. Any lingering questions about how the film franchise has blurred the line between portraying a spectacle and buying into it? This baby may have just answered them.
It’s an interesting conundrum. More important than any box office expectations or YA-movie preconceptions, the Hunger Games films have to contend with source material that explicitly reviles celebrity culture and celebratory excess in the face of callousness. The first film introduced the dystopian Panem and the yearly gladiatorial games, but Catching Fire centers on a government crackdown against a tide of public support so strong, it threatens to become all-out war—meaning the spectacle is under twice the scrutiny, both from its characters and its viewers.
Like in most sequels, Catching Fire’s world is wider, the cast larger, the budget bigger, the stakes higher. In the aftermath of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss is living in Victor’s Village alongside mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and co-victor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with whom she’s continued a sham relationship for the Capitol cameras. But her resistance in the arena made her a figurehead of rebellion, and their awkward-lovebird Victory Tour is peppered with incidents. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), determined to silence dissent, sets up a very special Quarter Quell Games that, surely only by coincidence, pulls from former victors. Peeta and Katniss must go back in the ring, where—again, surely only by coincidence—they’ll likely be killed.
Jennifer Lawrence has already proved an able anchor of the material as Katniss; the first film charted her journey from hardscrabble underdog to unwilling symbol and primary political target. In Catching Fire, she presents a young woman gone half-numb with fear, her cynicism a coat of ice over her intelligence and anger. Katniss wants nothing more, at first, than to disappear from the public eye; her resistance to the revolution is at first on par with her dislike of her role for the Capitol, and the slow shift in her feelings is neatly laid out in every sidelong stare. She’s matched in this outing by Peeta, who was charming in The Hunger Games but has more to chew on now, his political savvy making him a contender for the rebellion’s figurehead and his bursts of pride giving depth to his hopeless love for Katniss. Their relationship, thanks largely to the actors’ chemistry, is interesting on every front except the romantic.
They’re well-supported here by exceptional casting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as head gamemaker, and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer, as former victors, handily elevate their material. Sam Claflin shifts expectations and brings grinning menace to boytoy Games champion Finnick. Elizabeth Banks, as Capitol delegate Effie Trinket, has perhaps the most to do as the mirror through which we see the increasing cruelty of the Capitol. Unfortunately, not everyone rises to the occasion. Liam Hemsworth is deeply unmemorable, and, as the vicious Johanna Mason, Jena Malone only manages petulance. (That’s unfortunate, as she’s supposed to decry the Capitol’s underhanded Quell and reflect quite uneasy realities.)
Despite occasional woozy overuse of hand-held cameras in the first movie, Hunger Games director Gary Ross smartly created an experience akin to a first-person shooter video game with the shooter constantly on the verge of panic. Katniss was overwhelmed by the spectacle of the Capitol and the violence of the Games. The violence—always an issue when the characters are so young and the brutality so explicit—was also carefully constructed. Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence, has time for none of it. In fairness, the film is already balancing a pound of plot in a 12-ounce jug, and the audience, it’s presumed, understands the formula without lingering on the exhibitionism of the group training room. But here, the arena becomes just another big-budget action set with a mad scientist at the helm. For a film that introduces Katniss having a PTSD flashback to her kill in the Games, it still shows her knocking arrows through her opponents with blasé precision. Had prolonged exposure to the Games changed her, it would be an interesting benchmark, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, it’s one of many things brought up and discarded in the race to the cliffhanger finish.
It’s not the goal of these films to make movies about forced child murder through economic exploitation feel fun, but it absolutely is entertainment, and plenty of it is visually arresting. How much Catching Fire manages to keep its distance from the Capitol is debatable, but it’s well-enough told. Lady Lawrence provides an absorbing lead in Katniss, whose mounting anger carries the film through the dizzying celebrity and manslaughter circus to the final, catalytic burst of helpless rage against the Capitol that signals the birth of the Mockingjay. In Catching Fire, you (mostly) get the revolution you deserve.