The second instalment in the Hunger Games saga begins with tremendous verve. The film-makers conjure up a dystopian world that can't help but rekindle memories of Orwell's 1984. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) may have survived the combat in the first film but her prospects still seem grim. Her family and friends in District 12 live in poverty and under oppression. The brutal fascist regime led by Donald Sutherland's President Snow is using her for propaganda purposes.
Initially, the tone of the storytelling is dark and satirical. The production design effectively contrasts the desaturated, American depression-era look of the Districts with the gaudy excesses of the Capitol. Alongside the young leads, the cast is full of strong character actors who give the film a gravitas you don't expect in a franchise movie.
Gradually, though, the contradictions become apparent. Director Lawrence seems uncertain whether he is making a sci-fi thriller for adults or a teen adventure yarn. As the actual Hunger Games begin in earnest, the tempo stutters. The effects are spectacular but the reality-TV show conceit makes the storytelling seem increasingly cumbersome. You can't help but be frustrated by a movie that ends so abruptly (leaving us to wait for the next sequel). Still, to its credit, this is real film-making, not a cynical exercise in exploiting the Suzanne Collins books. Lawrence, back in a role a long way removed from her Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook, shows her star quality. Whether shooting arrows or intervening to stop a friend from being horsewhipped, she plays Katniss with such ferocious conviction that we never question for a moment how far-fetched the premise here actually is.
Francis Lawrence, 150 mins Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth