Will the revolution be televised? That's the burning question at the heart of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a sneaky and effective film adaptation of the second novel in Suzanne Collins' mega-popular young-adult trilogy. Taking place immediately after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Milark (Josh Hutcherson) survive the titular death match by posing as star-crossed lovers, the film initially explores the social and ideological reverberations of their victory.
Rumblings of rebellion are beginning to shake the totalitarian state of Panem, much to the chagrin of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who rules over the 12 outlying districts with an iron fist. He can feel the strength Katniss instills in the impoverished and suffering populace; she and her mockingjay symbol prove to be a unifying force. Despite attaining celebrity status with the bourgeoisie, she is a growing threat to their stranglehold over the poor.
From here, plot tentacles reach out in multiple directions, somewhat quashing the tension established by the opening. Katniss attempts to appease Snow's substantive threats by playing his public-relations game. She and Peeta put on a dog-and-pony show in an attempt to quell the rising tide of anti-government angst with their homegrown romance. Her advisor, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), says it best: "We must feed the monster."
But it's a known fact (one proven by most political thrillers) that appeasement gets you nowhere when dealing with thugs. Katniss and Peeta are inevitably doomed to once again take part in the ultimate battle royale, this time in honor of the 75th-anniversary edition compiled only of contestants who've previously won. The odds are most certainly not in their favor.
Strategically paced around narrative misdirection, Catching Fire continuously plays with the audience's expectations. This time, the simulated war zone is a massive tropical rainforest with a rocky waterway for a core. Facing a collection of trained assassins from the wealthier districts, Katniss and Peeta must form alliances with the other outcasts in order to survive. Multiple opportunities for betrayal arise.
The complex mechanisms of the arena add another intricate dimension to the film, as does the diversity of actors playing a gaggle of unique competitors. The great Jeffrey Wright pops up as a master electrician / scientist who survived his Hunger Games by electrocuting most of his opponents. But it's Jena Malone's ax-wielding badass who comes closest to stealing the show from Lawrence, a hard feat indeed.
Catching Fire may be a sequel to the 2012 megahit directed by Gary Ross, but, stylistically, it's a different beast altogether. You can immediately tell that filmmaker Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) favors a far more classical approach.
Instead of the spastic hand-held camera employed in the first film, cinematographer Jo Willems opens up the frame through wide-angle compositions and a graceful sense of movement. When Katniss retires to the back of a moving train, she stares out at the passing countryside lost in thought. The entire wall is made up of windows, allowing the passing world to take on a poetic blur. For a moment, the film attains a quiet solitude to match its hero's deep internal conflict.
The action scenes are also more coherent. A horrific sequence involving a massive blanket of poison fog quickly engulfing the forest is something of a marvel, not only for its crisp aesthetic value but also for the tension it creates, depicting the precise mortal coils of this barbaric game.
Since Catching Fire—which opens Friday, Nov. 22— is a transition film in the trilogy, it makes sense that Lawrence ends with the subversive tactics of revolutionaries daring enough to think big. Even if his film doesn't always feel complete as a standalone piece, it more than succeeds as a narrative bridge between a desaturated world once mired in suffering and a future democratic state forever changed by a stubborn girl with a bow. Let the true reaping begin.