Every second movie in a franchise, the one that ends with a cliffhanger, the one meant to sustain you until the epic finale, the thankless connective tissue, that movie always wants to be The Empire Strikes Back. And almost none of them are. It's hard enough just to sustain momentum in the middle film, much less achieve the rare feat of improving on the first chapter. But Catching Fire is as close to that Empire quality as any franchise sequel in memory. It accomplishes its goals by striking a nervy balance of intelligence and suspense, darkness and depth, blinding white teeth, emetic cocktails and extreme super-wigs.
It begins right where the last film ended. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), having survived the Hunger Games, are inducted into the evil Capitol's PR machine, sent on a "Victor's Tour" to pacify the growing unrest among the districts and forced to play out a fictional romance for the cameras, even as Katniss conducts a secret love affair with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). And when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) becomes aware that Katniss is a symbol of hope and revolution for the starving people she encounters on tour, he devises a plan to make life extremely difficult for her. The title is its own spoiler: there's more kill-or-be-killed on the menu.
The excellently inventive mechanics of that slaughter-based contest can be left for viewers to discover and enjoy on their own. It's the sideshow that counts here. Characters move into deeper territory, with Lawrence anchoring the action as she lives squarely inside Katniss's post-tramautic stress, building up an internal well of defiance and rage along the way. Cartoonish Capitol figures from the first film turn surprisingly human being-like. Small performances from great character actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman turn the plot upside down.
And then there's fear. It's really the main character, even more so than in the first movie. Director Francis Lawrence (who'll take on the last two film, as well) has overseen the rare tentpole project that can be taken at face value on its own action/adventure/suspense/romance terms, viewed and enjoyed thoughtlessly as an extravagant entertainment, or read as exactly what it is, an uneasy reflection of American economic anxiety as it exists right now. The erosion and dismantling of social safety nets is real, even if stormtroopers aren't penning people into labor camps and murdering dissidents. And this is the pop culture we get as a result.
Like last year's Les Miserables and the smart, money-crisis comedy of Bridesmaids before it, Hunger Games acknowledges and makes palpable a genuine sense of danger and the film never loses that tension. It knows what really scares us and it knows how to rally the troops at the margins. It's upsetting and inspiring in equal measure. And that's why we root for Katniss (and Lawrence, too, an actress whose off screen comments and behavior have been lovingly adopted by a public -- and BuzzFeed -- that hopes her Not Fake stance in a Hollywood that feels very much like The Capitol is as real as it seems). We want her to save us from the threat, to beat back Wall Street and Walmart and the monster-banks. If she can accomplish that in the next films, then whichever handsome boyfriend she picks, post-revolution, is fine, too.