The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Luke Skywalker never suffered from PTSD. We can easily imagine that he woke up from nightmares drenched in sweat. We just never saw it onscreen; depicting that sort of thing used to be the domain of angsty fan fiction. Nowadays, Tony Stark, in 3D IMAX, can't sleep after New York. Similarly, we get our reintroduction to Katniss Everdeen, co-winner of the 74th Hunger Games, via a tremendously horrific flashback she experiences in what was once her safe place – her secret hunting grounds in the woodsy fringes of District 12.
Catching Fire covers Katniss' "victory tour" and new life as a tool in an endless propaganda parade shoring up the spoiled, despotic Capitol that bleeds its impoverished districts dry of all resources, demanding even the lives of their children in the annual bloodsport battle-to-the-death called the Hunger Games.
Katniss (the glorious Jennifer Lawrence) isn't a classic hero. She's not a rebel or an idealist. She has never dreamed of overthrowing the Capitol, and she isn't starting now. She is pure pragmatism in a tough world with few options at her disposal, and she is doing what she must to save her own skin and protect those she loves. She is blatant about this: "I did what I had to do to survive."
She's a marvelous cutdown of the preposterousness that passes for heroism in movies, and a jab at the limited autonomy Hollywood often grants women characters.
The movie takes place over the year after Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) won the Games for District 12. The unprecedented dual winners are the result of Katniss' canny ploy of pretending to be madly in love with Peeta, which endeared them to the Capitol audience watching on television. The audience ate it up, so the Gamesmakers flet both of them live, lest they have a riot on their hands. Now, Katniss must keep up that pretense of passion for Peeta, to prevent people from figuring out her gesture was one of rebellion, not love. President Snow (a scarily smarmy Donald Sutherland) tells Katniss that she must keep up the "love-crazed besotted schoolgirl routine," or else.
But it's too late. Whatever she intended, those watching in the districts saw defiance. They've caught a glimmer of hope, and now actual riots are in the offing.
Katniss is an awesome character, and remarkable hero, because her battle is with herself. She wants to protect her family, but also the boy she's really in love with, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the other surviving Games winner from District 12, who continues to mentor Katniss and Peeta – but she cannot help but be the girl for whom disregarding the rules is as normal as breathing.
Katniss is special, and so is the story around her. It's a devastating indictment of pop culture as propaganda, about its power and the limits of its powers, within its own context. It's a strike at the willful ignorance of the well-off in the face of poverty and desperation all around them. How do the people of the Capitol cope with their lives of comfort and luxury next to the deaths of children? At an obscenely lavish Capitol party in Katniss and Peeta's honor, new Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells her, "If you abandon your moral judgment, it can be fun."
I can't exactly say that Catching Fire is "fun," then, but with its excellent sociological sci-fi speculation and solid adventure, it's an enormously rewarding and provocative drama in the guise of popcorn entertainment.