When last we left Katniss Everdeen, she of the steady bow and quivering lip, our screen heroine had thwarted the totalitarian entertainment state at its own game(s), doubling down with a suicide pact and sharing the crown with her fellow District 12 contestant, Peeta Mellark. These two youngsters became fan favorites — as did the actors who played them, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson — perpetrating a romance story line so as not to rock the status quo.
Donald Sutherland's President Snow looked disapprovingly at Katniss' mockingjay pin, a hometown trinket that was slowly becoming a symbol for bucking the system. Author Suzanne Collins, it is assumed, cashed a large check. Viewers settled in, knowing that further installments of this bountiful pop-lit film franchise, one that promised to put the YA back in dystopia, were on the way.
Like its high-grossing predecessor, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire mixes broad social satire, blockbuster pulp, teen angst and a vintage-serial sense of thrills, spills, chills into the bleakest of bubble-gum packages. Against a nuclear-winter landscape, Katniss and her actual blue-eyed beau (Liam Hemsworth) pass the time hunting turkeys and dealing with her PTSD. She and fellow "victor" Peeta are occasionally trotted out to the various shantytown districts, using public appearances in front of Russian-constructivist posters to talk up the glory of the Capitol. Except propaganda isn't stopping the murmurings of revolution.
At speeches, certain crowd members hold three fingers in the air: the mockingjay gesture. Truncheons come out. Gunshots are fired. The center can't hold.
Out come the bread and circuses again, only now former winners are pitted against each other. Welcome back, gaudy caricatures of carping showbiz parasites, and Woody Harrelson as Katniss' drunken mentor. Once more into the fray, photogenic young actors must battle various obstacles — blistering mist, baboons, rainstorms of blood — as well as each other to survive. How we've missed you, ongoing sexual tension between Lawrence and Hutcherson's most-dangerous-game contestants, who gallantly try to retain their humanity while firing arrows into sternums.
New faces join the franchise, including Sam Claflin (generically dreamy), Jena Malone (spiky), Amanda Plummer (scenery-chewy) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phillip Seymour Hoffman-y). But what's missing is the shock of the new, an absence that isn't helped by the narrative and structural similarity to the first film: tough times, guilt, training sessions, defiance through custom-made couture, countdown, game time, death dealing, repeat.
Even with the original film's director, Gary Ross, out and music-video auteur/I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence in, there doesn't seem to be any great leaps forward or regressive falls backward. Tonal consistency within a series is one thing. Catching Fire comes closer to feeling like a carbon copy.
Collins' books were phenomenal, not just because they introduced YA readers to far-out notions of class warfare, celebrity-culture vulgarism, Neil Postman 101 theories about amusing ourselves to death and social Darwinism in extremis; any resemblance to the Hunger Games' world and ours was never supposed to be coincidental. Nor was it because they courted controversy by having brutal kid-on-kid violence, though that gave them an edginess that, say, the Harry Potter and Twilight books did not have.
It really came down to Katniss, as compelling a character as the literary genre has given us. It can't be overstated how vital Jennifer Lawrence is: the athleticism, the vulnerability, the guilt, the grit, the martyrdom, the femininity, even the humor. You don't need to have seen her in Winter's Bone or Silver Linings Playbook to appreciate the complexity she brings to this role, and how easy she makes it look.
Like the book, Catching Fire ends openly, setting up a shitstorm that will take up the two films that will cover the final novel. We won't come back because of that. We will come back to see how Lawrence deals with it. The odds of that are ever in her favor.