‘Catching Fire’ is compelling, entertaining

When we last left Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she had just won her dystopian state’s Hunger Games, where she defied the rule of the totalitarian Capitol by saving her fellow contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). In “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the forces of the Capitol – led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) – are forced to celebrate Katniss’ victory, while simultaneously attempting to suppress the revolutionary sparks she has ignited. Now the political powers of the Capitol have decided to send Katniss and Peeta into yet another Hunger Games, hoping that this time the population will see her as a conniving opportunist rather than the revolutionary hero she has inadvertently become.

The challenge for director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend” (2007), “Water for Elephants” (2011)), who takes over from previous franchise director Gary Ross, is to create a film that delivers on the popularity and promise of 2012’s “The Hunger Games” without falling prey to repeating the first film beat-by-beat. Part of the problem is embedded in the source material, which throws the protagonists into another Hunger Games by the second act of the story. Though this installation fails to fully capture the internal dialogue of the book, Lawrence manages to refocus the film in a way that gives it renewed thematic energy.

From the very first scene, “Catching Fire” wraps its characters in a sense of dread, allowing them little respite from the last movie. The grim political overtones of the previous chapter carry over, and this relentless atmosphere creates a compelling subplot – different enough from the first film (where Katniss remained mostly unaware of what was happening behind the scenes) to keep us interested.

That consistent sense of atmospheric trepidation keeps the film interesting as we inevitably hurtle back into the realm of the Hunger Games. Though it lags a little during the Games portion of the film, Lawrence luckily opts to focus more on the interpersonal interactions between the veteran contestants and the lingering backroom politics, instead of the vague CGI elements of the actual competition.

It is in this character development that “Catching Fire” finds its brilliance. An unexpected yet impressive feat, the film manages to explore the humanity of each of its main characters, despite how antagonistic they may have been in the previous film. As President Snow and the Capitol become more prominent, we slowly watch once-opposing characters realize that they are actually on the same side, drawn together by the hope that Katniss has inspired. Portrayed by an assembly of powerful character actors, these roles prevent the film from slipping into poorly constructed and repetitive action-based mechanics.

Ultimately, the film hinges on the one thing that brings all of these political overtones and character development together: Katniss Everdeen. Here, Jennifer Lawrence delivers spectacularly. Throughout the film, she expertly channels the torment Katniss experiences with a range that makes many of the veteran actors around her pale in comparison.

It is also worth noting the many ways in which “Catching Fire” avoids cliche. Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) set up a classic love triangle for Katniss, and while her affections for both characters reflect on her development, her story is never solely dictated by them. Katniss repeatedly acts to save the two men, and her actions are met with respect and admiration. It is rather rare to see such strong expressions of sophisticated female empowerment in film, and “Catching Fire” deserves credit for its unapologetic front-and-center portrayal of Katniss.

An emphasis on political resistance and individual humanity – despite the sometimes-plodding action – prevents the film from feeling like a repeat performance of the first. Eventually, the final part of the series will help define how we judge the second’s success, but for now “Catching Fire” successfully sets the stage for the series to take its place in the canon of science-fiction and fantasy cinema.