“It was an act.” Even as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) tries to reassure her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that what he saw on TV was not real, he continues to worry: “It was a good one,” he mutters, turning from her in the wide expanse of woods where they’re hunting illegally. Seemingly ever in pursuit of sustenance for themselves and their families, the two teens have once again clambered past the fences and into the misty morning. As they ponder their futures—together and apart—they wonder how to trust one another, whether they can and what it might mean even to try. They’re kids making adult decisions, decisions that will, you know, be life or death.
That such decisions hinge on “an act” is at once Katniss’ greatest and most dire insight coming out of <>The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire. Here, at the start of the much-anticipated sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, she insists on her control, of her performance and also her feelings about her performance. “I did what I had to do to survive,” Katniss doesn’t quite explain. And at this very moment, no surprise, the film reveals that she is not. For as she takes aim at the deer she means to bring home for breakfast, her mind offers her another vision: instead of the animal, she sees a young man crumple to the ground when struck by her arrow. She gasps, falls back, and looks horrified. Gale, who hasn’t seen what she and you see, looks horrified for other reasons. When she suggests it’s time to head back, he goes along.
Going along, of course, is one means of survival in Panem, where poor folks fight and kill each other to save their district—for the next year, anyway. A byproduct is that their struggles serve as entertainment for the privileged “1%”, if you will. The story goes that the impoverished don’t rise up because they lack organization and a leader; with her decision to feign love with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss became that leader, in all minds but her own.
Presently, while she hopes only to continue surviving with her now sentient mother (Paul Malcomson) and increasingly sturdy sister Prim (Willow Shields), Katniss is pulled back into the past, by her own nightmarish visions, by Gale’s doubt, and by the Hunger Games too. For as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) watches her—as he watches everyone, with his omniscient TV cameras setup—he sees in her the leader of others that he most fears. And so he decrees, Katniss is not done with the Games: much like the US military “volunteers” who sign on for or are stop-lossed into multiple tours, like the Survivor contestants who seek redemption, revenge or an extended celebrity, she and other former victors will gather for an All Star Edition.
This means Peeta will be along too, which vexes Katniss to no end, partly because she thought her need to protect him was over with the previous Games and also because she’ll have to comport herself all over again, pretend to love him, pretend not to love him, and pretend she’s in control of any of these moments. Pretending is what the Games are all about, whether for the sensational emcee Caesar (Stanley Tucci), egging on his contestants to wow the crowd, or for the backstage machinators, the so-clever stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and the mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), whose alcoholism Katniss now appreciates for what it is, an ineffective self-medication against the same traumas she suffers.
These traumas roar to the surface for Katniss on each stop of the Victory Tour she takes with Peeta (who appears strangely unaffected by his traumas, or is so obsessed with Katniss that he has no room in his reportedly large heart for any other sense of loss). Seeing video images of the Tributes killed in the last Games, Katniss is struck hard by her guilt—for surviving and for killing—her shell shock visible in he teary eyes and trembly voice, making speech after speech, watching any sort of resistance squashed instantly (the guards who travel with her and Peeta run into a crowd, pick out a rebel, and duly beat or shoot him). When the Games begin, and Katniss is called on to go through the same motions as she did before, she’s both more proficient and more cynical, a veteran performer and consumer too.
Director Francis Lawrence’s version of this dilemma grows darker as the Games go on, literally, as night overcomes day, and also metaphorically, as the poisonous environment-set seeps into the (imagined?) TV-viewing world beyond: Katniss, Peeta, and their new allies are beset by jungle heat, dehydration, a bunch of sharp-toothed monkeys, and toxic mist, a continuing rollout of menace and tension, courtesy of the new Games designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). These on top of the usual other Tributes who do their best to destroy all rivals, among whom the outraged and sometimes outrageous Johanna (Jena Malone) is easily the most entertaining, while the eccentric-seeming old folks, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), provide a bit of age diversity.
That no one can come out of this whole is once again the prevailing point. “Nobody ever wins the Games,” asserts Haymitch, who knows whereof he speaks. He knows that everyone who plays the Games is a player for life, that their deaths and commemorations serve the living. What he doesn’t point out here, because he can’t be aware of the other audience, beyond Panem, is that the franchise in which he continues to survive is yet another iteration of the problem. Self-knowing, cynical, and urgently melodramatic, the Hunger Games and The Hunger Games indict you for watching it even as it asks you to buy in. And that is the genius of every iteration of the Games no one can ever win.