(credit: Lionsgate)

(credit: Lionsgate)

Pop quiz.

You are the despotic ruler of a dystopian future world where everyone either dresses like Lady Gaga or casting call respondents for a Dorothea Lange photo shoot, and the entire world is more or less forced to watch an annual reality show wherein 24 children forced to hunt each other to the death on a simulated Survivor-esque jungle island. There have been rumblings from the poorest districts of revolution, following the inspirational and unprecedented double win of hometown heroes Katniss and Peeta, and most of the stops on their victory tour end with insurgent riots as the have-nots salute their newfound avatars of freedom.

To break your citizens’ spirits, do you …

a)    Kill Katniss?
b)    Smear her reputation through the media (which you control)?
c)    Break all rules of fairness and force Katniss and Peeta to compete once again in an “All-Stars” version of the Hunger Games, thereby inviting everyone in Panem to once again root for her to triumph and, should she emerge victorious again, bust your entire fascist regime wide open.

If you think C is the most sensible answer then you probably won’t be as hung up on the credibility problems of this second installment in the phenomenally popular Hunger Games series as I was. And if the actions of President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland, in full Movember beard) in Catching Fire strained the smell test for me, it’s at least in part because, following the shaky first installment, something finally appears to be at stake in author Suzanne Collins’ universe. It’s no mere improvement; at times, it feels like a fulfillment.

And the lion’s share of the credit deserves to go to Oscar’s reigning Miss America, Jennifer Lawrence, whose work here is even fuller and richer than it was the first time around.

Her Katniss wrestles with violent flashbacks to her traumatic earlier experience in the terror-dome, when she was forced to send her arrows slicing through her peers’ torsos. She still hears the dying cries of the children she forged alliances with echoing in the back of her head. Forget the tension she must deal with between her boyfriend-elect Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the boy she faked a love affair with on live TV, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss is barely breaking even against a ferocious case of PTSD, and that’s even before she gets a personal visit from President Snow, who threatens the lives of her family if she can’t convince both the people of Panem as well as himself that her rebellion-quelling Cinderella love story with Peeta is for real.

Neither Snow nor Katniss quite realize until she and Peeta are deployed on the district-by-district victory tour that the genie is already well out of the bottle. At each train stop (especially in the districts with higher numbers and lower average household incomes), Katniss’s arrival is greeted with a combination of reverence and insubordination, as the oppressed salute her as their “Mockingjay” (a signal she used during the games to signal her tragically killed competitor Rue).

Enraged, Snow invokes the Quarter Quell clause to call back previous competitors to take part in the next Hunger Games. Being as Katniss was the only woman from District 12 to ever win the games, she’s automatically in.

If Collins’ book appeared to be bending over backwards to find a way to get Katniss back into harm’s way, Lawrence’s miraculous performance makes it clear that her mental state is already irreparably altered. In fact, the games almost feel like an afterthought compared to the grueling paces she’s put through volleying between Snow, Peeta, Gale, her constituents, the upper-class twits of District 1. As an actress, Lawrence is adept at showing the many ways her character’s poker face fails her. She’s an enormously open performer playing a naturally cagey pawn learning the rules of the game as she goes along, and director Francis Lawrence (taking the reins from the first film’s Gary Ross) wisely uses her emotional veracity to dance over the ever more prominent leaps in logic. For all the wild, wooly dangers that await Katniss and the rest of the recycled tributes — ravenous baboons, tidal waves, acidic fog — nothing in Catching Fire seems as charged or volatile as any given close-up of Lawrence, who in the final shot practically seems possessed by the spirit of The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s Falconetti.

Catching Fire may not be a great movie in and of itself, but it at least justifies the series’ prominent position within current pop cultural discourse. Only time and the impending final installments will tell the tale, but at the moment, it certainly lives up to its role as the series’ Empire Strikes Back.

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