It says something that two of the biggest sensations in young adult literature over the past ten years have featured heroines who keep more than one guy on the line at a time. No longer do the genre's bright young women sit around waiting for one Mr. Right to notice them. Both Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games sagas invert Jan and Dean's Surf City ideal. Two boys for every girl! That ought to double the fun, but really, it only multiplies the headaches.
Jennifer Lawrence's earthy enchantress, Katniss Everdeen, is just figuring that out in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second entry in the film franchise based on Collins' bodaciously successful novels. Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence (taking the reins from Gary Ross), picks up exactly where the first movie left off. And I mean exactly. If you haven't seen the first picture or read the books, you'll need a 14-year-old girl to explain the intricacies to you: They're just way too 2012 for me to go into right now.
But basically, you should know that in the dystopian futuristic country of Panem, the 1 percent live in luxury while the 99 percent toil, like the exhausted drones in Metropolis, to keep the elite in the style to which they are accustomed. There are 12 districts' worth of those underlings, and once a year, each territory must offer up two of its young people to participate in a televised event known as the Hunger Games, in which the unfortunate chosen ones are forced to kill one another off in an elaborate, controlled stadium environment. The prize: enough money (and food) to lift the winner's family out of poverty.
Katniss, an entrant from District 12, has survived the games, thanks to her crackerjack archery skills and even more impressive disdain for authority. Her neighbor and co-competitor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is not-so-secretly in love with her, has survived too, but Katniss isn't sure how she feels. She's been best friends forever with another District 12 lad, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and as Catching Fire opens, he catches her off-guard and plants one hell of a confusing kiss on her lips. Katniss is the sort of young woman, striding hither and thither with her ever-present archer's bow, who may not have room in her life for one guy. What's she supposed to do with two?
As it turns out, mere survival takes up most of her time. The evil elders of Panem — led by Donald Sutherland, a naughty big-daddy silver fox if ever there was one — recognize that her rebellious streak and celebrity status threaten their omnipotence. Their solution: forcing her to compete in a sort of all-star Hunger Games playoff, devising even deadlier challenges than they did last time. Poison fog, blood rain, killer baboons with scary painted faces: The new mastermind behind all these Outward Bound exercises is Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking ordinary and pudgy and all the more sinister for it).
Catching Fire suffers from the movie equivalent of middle-book syndrome: The story is wayward and rangy, on its way to being something, maybe, but not adding up to much by itself. Still, it's entertaining as civics lessons go, and it's a more polished, assured picture than its predecessor. Director Lawrence, as in his adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, merges the naturalistic with the fantastic so gracefully that you can't see the seams. Those hyperrealistic baboons mean business when they come charging out of their man-made jungle environment, snapping their jaws and baring their deadly teeth. Instead of being allowed to cavort in the wild, they've become tools of the state, and they're none too happy about it.
The circus of reality TV, the emptiness of celebrity culture, the horrors wrought by oppressive governments that rule by fear: If you feel like rummaging around the fridge for tropes, there are plenty here. There's also a wackadoodle roster of supporting actors, many — like Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman, with his glow-in-the-dark choppers, and Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket, flouncing around in her feathery false eyelashes like a space-age Phyllis Diller — returning from the first movie. There are newcomers too, most notably Jeffrey Wright and the great Amanda Plummer as a duo of competitors who, like Katniss, rely more on brains than brawn. Neither has much to do, but Plummer's channeled-from-Neptune timing is a plus in any movie.
Jennifer Lawrence, of course, is the real draw. Female role models come and go, and Lawrence's Katniss is one of the better ones. Katniss is clearly a champion of the people, but there's no sanctimony or pretense of false modesty in the way Lawrence plays her. She gives the appearance of listening more than she talks, the opposite of what we usually get from today's feisty heroines. Somehow, Lawrence — even though her character is a proactive Diana the huntress — makes thinking look more dynamic than reacting. Her eyes say lots of things: "Get over yourself," "I'm not buying this," and "OK, show me." But sometimes they also say, "I don't know what I want." Which guy, which path, which life? Lawrence is a movie star who's still believable as a girl. She's both on fire and in the process of becoming, and it's magnificent to watch.