A harsh wintry chill grips “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” from its very first moments.
It’s there in the opening image of heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) crouched silently, deep in solitary contemplation on the frigid bank of a river in a dead-of-winter forest.
But it’s Donald Sutherland who is the embodiment of that chill. From his snow-white beard and hair to his frosty tone of voice, Sutherland’s so appropriately named President Snow is a figure of icy malice. As the leader of the fascistic dictatorship that rules the futuristic society Panem in “The Hunger Games,” he’s unprincipled and utterly ruthless.
It’s a remarkable performance. And it’s just one of several in “Catching Fire,” which helps explain why this second installment of the “Hunger Games” trilogy is a significant improvement on the movie that launched the franchise last year. Credit director Francis Lawrence (no relation to the lead actress) for that. Taking over the reins from Gary Ross, who directed the original “Hunger Games,” Lawrence brings a level of seriousness and visual elegance to “Catching Fire” that makes the picture feel much more substantial than its predecessor.
“The Hunger Games” was about a loss of innocence, as Katniss and the other teenage characters in the society envisioned in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young adult source novels are sent to kill one another in the diabolical “games” of the title. “Catching Fire” is about what happens to these characters after their innocence is lost.
Katniss, her devoted friend and fellow game participant Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and her love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are still young, but they’re no longer children. Their childhood has been killed off by what they’ve been forced to endure (thanks for that, President Snow). They’re tougher and much more mature this time around, which makes the fact that the actors playing these roles are in their early 20s less jarring.
Katniss and Peeta are forced to compete again in a new, even more lethal version of the games devised by President Snow and his games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, getting a lot of mileage from an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile) as an elaborate way to kill Katniss. Her triumph in the first game has turned her into a Joan of Arc figure to the oppressed populace of Panem and is threatening Snow’s grip on power. So the game must be rigged to ensure she doesn’t survive.
Director Lawrence adroitly mixes lavish spectacle with scenes of harrowing physical dangers during the game sequences while actress Lawrence anchors the picture with her character’s sense of grim purposefulness. The more she’s challenged, the stronger she becomes.
The movie is remarkably faithful to its source novel. Among other things, that means its ending is a cliffhanger, setting the stage for the final two sequels based on the third novel “Mockingjay.”
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
* * * *
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Director: Francis Lawrence
Running time: 2:26
Rated: PG-13; intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.