Much of the genius of the “Hunger Games” franchise lies in its portrayal of a dystopian future society that lacks any specific ideological character. Panem, the deep-future dictatorship that has apparently replaced present-day America after an unspecified combination of civil war, social meltdown and ecological catastrophe, has the semiotic appearance of fascism – white-helmeted storm troopers and barbed-wire walls – but is really more like an old-fashioned feudal society, concerned entirely with maintaining its internal order. In reviewing the first “Hunger Games” movie, I observed that the relentless media onslaught of the Information Age has been rolled back, in author Suzanne Collins’ fictional universe, to one TV network and one reality show. Politics has been stripped down too: There is nothing except Empire and Resistance.
I have no idea whether Collins understood, while writing her best-selling trilogy of novels, that this would allow Tea Party libertarians to embrace Katniss Everdeen’s incipient rebellion against the tyranny of the effete, aestheticized and affluent Capital as easily as could Obama liberals or left-wing anarchists. Is this a story of the 99 percent rising against their corporate overlords, or of real Americans “taking their country back” from the cultural elite? Of course, it’s more likely Collins was seeking narrative clarity and simplicity for a young-adult audience -- a situation where the good guys and bad guys appear clearly delineated, as in World War II or apartheid South Africa. (Collins has been understandably cagey about her personal politics, although she has said the idea for “The Hunger Games” came to her after encountering reality-TV and Iraq War coverage on the same night.)
There’s a naiveté to the politics of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second movie chapter, that’s simultaneously appealing and troubling. “This is the revolution,” someone announces near the end of the film, with stentorian certainty. (I won’t tell you who.) Yes, OK, the revolution. Great! But a revolution led by whom, conducted how, and with what goals in mind? No one in the story, or in the audience, has any idea. None of which detracts much from the gathering momentum of this ripping yarn, or the charismatic tomboy presence of Jennifer Lawrence, Hollywood’s irresistible It Girl, in a role that is likely to define her entire career. Perhaps the most useful thing I can tell you about “Catching Fire” is that I went in dreading its 146-minute running time, especially after the messy and often undercooked first film, and was so captivated by the vibrant spectacle -- seeing the movie in IMAX is actually worth it, this time around -- that I was startled when the closing credits began to roll. It’s a middle chapter, for sure, but a vigorous and fast-paced one that leaves you hungry for more. (There’s only one book left to go, “Mockingjay,” but as is customary these days, it’s been split into two films.)
In the first installment, Katniss (Lawrence) and fellow District 12 “tribute” Peeta Mellark (the perennially wounded-looking Josh Hutcherson) successfully stood up to the voyeurism and sadism of the Hunger Games by staging a not-entirely-fake romantic subplot and refusing to kill each other for the entertainment of millions. Now they live in the sterile luxury of Victor’s Village, alongside drunken former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, with a Lord Byron haircut), largely unaware that their act of defiance has sparked rebellion in many of the enslaved proletarian districts of Panem. Katniss remains rather boringly torn between love-struck Peeta and brooding coal miner Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), neither of whom is really up to her standard. In some ways her most interesting relationship in “Catching Fire” is with Donald Sutherland as the leonine, unctuous President Snow, a sinister father figure who yearns to exploit, distort and/or destroy Katniss. They forge a short-term alliance in which Snow promises to keep Katniss’ family safe if she and Peeta stage a lovebirds’ victory tour of all the districts that will help him keep the peace.
Katniss is unwilling to read the prepared texts given to her by her Capital minder, the marvelously named and attired Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), but going off the script only worsens the tension and violence – one of the first notes of political ambiguity in this entire series. (As those who’ve read the books already know, that tendency will accelerate in the two movies yet to come.) Having executed last year’s game designer, Snow turns to a cynical new adviser named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, marvelous as ever), who assures the president he has a new “wrinkle” that will destroy Katniss’ credibility as a symbol of rebellion. It’s the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games – time for a special “reaping” that will bring together a collection of previous victors in a new contest, and thereby wipe out all but one of them.
There was no particular reason to think that Austrian-born director Francis Lawrence (of “I Am Legend” and many music videos) deserved to take this franchise over from Hollywood veteran Gary Ross, who directed the first film. But “Catching Fire” is much crisper, more driven and more balanced than its predecessor, and while the Hunger Games themselves remain a what-the-hell series of ludicrous adventures – poison fog! Tsunami waves! Killer baboons! Hillary Clinton! (OK, one of those things isn’t really in the movie) – Lawrence keeps the pedal to the metal. Perhaps more important, the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn never loses track of the fact that the game action is metaphorical, and the real drama is happening outside the arena (revealed conclusively, on this occasion, to be an arena).
The most enjoyable supporting characters from the first movie are back, including Haymitch, Effie and Stanley Tucci as ponytailed TV host Caesar Flickerman, his tanned skin and fluorescent teeth emitting a radioactive glow. Best among the new Hunger Games tributes are Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as a pair of autistic-coded technical geniuses, along with yet another Katniss-distracting tormented hunk, the excessively noble Finnick Odair, played by English actor Sam Claflin. Ultimately, the entire “Hunger Games” franchise is self-contradictory, as is nearly all of pop culture. In fact, it’s precisely the thing it claims to criticize or oppose: a work of symbolic and quasi-therapeutic violence, designed to make us feel better about oppressive conditions. That doesn’t mean the disaffection it channels isn’t real, or that this shared pop-culture pseudo-revolution has no meaning. Only that we don’t know what it is, and that when Katniss finally has to pick between her two boyfriends, we’ll all be disappointed.