Silver Screen: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ***1/2

Silver Screen: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire  ***1/2
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The second Hunger Games movie is superior to the first for several reasons, not the least of which i
Bryan Miller

The second Hunger Games movie is superior to the first for several reasons, not the least of which is that it doesn’t have to spend so much time explaining the kind-of-ridiculous concept of The Hunger Games.

You can describe the story in a single sentence or a four-hundred-page novel, but anything in between gets weird fast. The sentence: “A teenage girl living in a dystopian future is forced by her totalitarian government to fight other teenagers in a deadly game that’s televised for the entertainment of the rich and the subjugation of the poor.” But the details range from the perplexing— “Also, she has to model pretty dresses made for her by Lenny Kravitz”— to the confusing. What exactly happened in the vaguely discussed revolution to institute this oppressive system? Do no other countries still exist outside of the fictional country of Panem, whose dimensions and proportions seem to vary when the plot requires?

Yet for all the disjointed imaginings and shoddy sci-fi logic, certain elements of The Hunger Games ring true. The pageantry and promotion of the games themselves are a sharp satire of reality-show conventions, with the endless buildup of hype and speculation begetting bursts of quick, dispiriting action. (Stanley Tucci’s sly performance as the games’ official host, a deranged Jeff Probst as imagined by Philip K. Dick, seals the deal.) It’s an easily relatable primer on basic ninety-nine-percenter anticapitalism. It borrows a little of Les Miserables’ lovey-dovey subplot to spice up a decent love triangle that presents our resourceful heroine with an embarrassment of riches— when the revolution comes, to pick the hunky man of thought or the hunky man of action?

We’ve already been walked through the broad strokes of The Hunger Games’ plot and gotten at least kind of used to seeing Elizabeth Banks in her neon geisha makeup. If you’ve made it to Catching Fire with your attention intact, you’re in for a smoother ride.

The sequel picks up pondering, with appropriate gravity, the outcome of the last installment. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her TV boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are living back in District Twelve with their families, but remain haunted by what they were forced to see and do. A government-mandated victory tour through the other districts only opens their eyes to the depth of the country’s misery. No longer able to conceal their disgust, Katniss becomes a symbol of resistance. The nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides to snuff her out, but new game designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), suggests a more politically savvy assassination— just put her back in the Hunger Games.

Catching Fire mimics the format of the first movie just enough to reestablish a framework from which it can break out. It’s a nifty storytelling move that allows the movie to be both comfortingly familiar and surprising. It squeezes a lot into its two-and-a-half-hour running time, enough to make the pacing feel surprisingly fleet for a story already prone to tangents.

Many of the visual details as imagined by Suzanne Collins, author of the popular novels, work better on page than screen. The outfits that blaze and melt into entirely different dresses that smolder and spark look pretty silly when literalized, especially as two modern-looking young actors riding in the back of a chariot wear them. The conceptions of the mega-wealthy capital, too, are mostly just garish and painful to look at. Tucci’s eccentric TV host aside, the denizens of the capital and their hyperbolic fashions seem like a parody of everything and nothing at all.

Director Francis Lawrence wasn’t involved in the first movie and presumably had no input in the visual framework of the world, but he works within it well. He’s a vast improvement over Gary Ross, director of the last movie, whose action sequences were flat and who had even more trouble bringing credibility to the candy-colored universe.

So far, The Hunger Games movies teeter on the verge of total ridiculousness, but they work thanks in large part to the cast, which seems to understand just how hysterically to pitch the material without overdoing it. Tucci is delightfully unhinged, and Sutherland looks like an elderly cartoon wolf. The other leads inject a little verisimilitude into their performances to ground the emotions among all the sci-fi silliness. Woody Harrelson’s soulful kookiness makes him fit strangely well into an unreal universe, and Hoffman adopts a cool menace that lends his character an aura of mystery that none of the others possess.

Lawrence is definitively the star, though, and not just in terms of screentime. The same toughness she brought to Winter’s Bone still comes through the blockbuster glamour. It’s perhaps her greatest asset to seem both real and ethereal at the same time.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.