“Love is weird,” quips a Hunger Games contestant midway through The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, acknowledging that romance, improbably, takes center stage in a film whose characters are otherwise suffering overwhelming oppression, always struggling to survive just one more day in a cruel world. But such are the furnishings of the young-adult narrative: For the typical YA protagonist, love (and its downstairs neighbor, lust) is generally treated as the Most Important Thing Ever, and this privileging of the romantic impulse over survival often seems at odds with the gravity of the situations these characters frequently find themselves in.
Not necessarily so, however, with Catching Fire. The love triangle at the center of the series—resourceful Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) being constantly torn between her childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and her newfound ally in the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)—actually buttresses a central concern with the idea of media as social control. To keep her family out of harm's way, Katniss is forced to pretend that what happened at the end of the first Hunger Games film—in which she and Peeta threatened to eat poison berries and die alongside one another, but then were declared dual victors in the nick of time and allowed to return home together after all—was an act of love, rather than what it actually was: an act of defiance which could potentially mobilize the masses. And to do so, she must now publicly perform a love affair which thus far has only been a point of strategy, all while knowing that Gale, dirty and over-worked, is watching the charade unfold on his TV screen back in District 12.
The privileged citizens of the Capitol eat up this canned melodrama, which supports the wisdom of the administration's strategy to distract the populace from the implications of what's just been revealed to them through the incident with the berries: that the system can be beat. But the more shrewd and cynical viewers in the outer districts aren't placated so easily, and the seeds of revolution are decisively sown, Katniss emerging as its primary representative. And this is the ultimate question that Catching Fire addresses: How much can performance—the idea of pretending for the media, and the ultimate ramifications of spin—really achieve? In other words, can the media really divert a revolution?
As opposed to Lawrence, who's remarkable here in scenes that imply a lot more going on in her head than Katniss would like to admit, Katniss the character isn't yet a natural actress, and she doesn't quite achieve verisimilitude in her depiction of a young girl in love. So she ends up—you guessed it!—being forced to play in the Hunger Games yet again, this time with higher stakes and more complicated consequences as those in power desperately try to suppress her influence. Like an inverted Marie Antoinette (who represented the garishness of the ruling class rather than the struggle of the revolutionaries), Katniss is less person than symbol, a symbol which must be destroyed at all costs. But the performance continues: This is reality television to the death, and who performs more desperately and obviously than reality TV contestants?
Director Francis Lawrence imbues the source material provided by novelist Suzanne Collins with visceral pleasure in well-wrought scenes vacillating between elaborate spectacle, breathtaking terror, and—occasionally—surprising beauty. The lushness of the natural world in the outer districts is cast smartly against the flamboyant cityscapes and ridiculous technological advancements enjoyed by citizens living in the Capitol, and the film's soundtrack, too, picks up this constant clash between the natural and the synthetic. The film ultimately survives based on the attention paid to this inherent dichotomy, and the best performances echo this conflict between reality and artifice: Lawrence exudes trauma and heartbreak, her grief so raw and moving in a scene in which Katniss thinks she's lost a loved one, while Philip Seymour Hoffman, new to the series, brings a delicate ambiguity to his rather brief screen time. The parts of the film that move us and inspire us do so all the more effectively for their ability to let us overcome our predisposition to skepticism and cut directly into the heart of the matter. The film's form—clean and evocative, but never too ostentatious, perhaps operating on lessons learned from its weaker predecessor—doesn't distract from the content, and lets the characters speak for themselves.
Katniss, too, learns to read her surroundings, figuring out how to discern allies from enemies and how to distinguish small battles from the bigger war. She's torn between a desire to escape and a desire to fight, a resistance to her status as a revolutionary and an innate desire to contribute to the rebellion. But luckily for her, the world of The Hunger Games is one in which small actions—the raising of a hand in salute during a demonstration, for example, or the wearing of a pin in the shape of a particular bird—are full of implication, symbols always leading directly to increasingly out of control chains of events. Even if all Katniss did was focus on choosing between Gale and Peeta, we could extrapolate from this particular choice a larger framework: How much will we sacrifice for the greater good, and how much does that sacrifice change us?