When we last left the kill-or-be-killed teens in last year's The Hunger Games, the twosome from District 12 — Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) — had outsmarted the rulers of Capital City. For the first time ever, there would be two winners of the annual death battle, designed to subjugate the impoverished 12 districts of Panem (a.k.a. America in the future).
It seemed like a positive ending, but as the next chapter opens — The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence — nobody is happy. Katniss and Peeta are understandably suffering from PTSD. And President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is still put out by Katniss' trickery and her general lack of cooperation. The winning couple is sent on a "victory tour," but it's a PR disaster: Rebellion is starting to foment in the outlying districts, with Katniss held up as inspiration. (Some obvious graffiti out in the sticks: "The odds are never in our favor.")
Back at Capital City — which is taking on a decidedly fascist look — Snow and his new game designer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) concoct a perfect solution, one designed to show the dissenters who's in charge and neutralize Katniss. Surely, you've thought of it, too — another round of killing games! The 75th Hunger Games are announced, and it's an all-star season, with 24 previous victors, including Katniss and Peeta.
Catching Fire is a solid and entertaining two-and-a-half hours, and about half of it is this prologue to, and preparation for, the new battle. (There are also two reprises of Katniss' flaming dress; enjoy them, as the story suggests there won't be many fiery ballgowns in the future.)
In many ways, the narrative mirrors the first film, but with new combatants (now adults, including the always welcome Jeffrey Wright) and a more broadly defined victory. It's not simply enough for Katniss to survive — the stage has been set for a country-wide revolt. The battle scenes are more focused this time out — alliances are formed early and some strategies are long-range. But the game arena is still a perilous place, with new and baroque dangers.
If you enjoyed Hunger Games, you'll like Catching Fire well enough, even if it feels like a bigger, better retread, intercut with scene-setting for the next chapter. (Mockingjay is the final novel of Suzanne Collins' trilogy, but it will unfold over two more movies.) The stakes have been raised — the personal has become political — and I'm curious to see how this part-teen-pulp/part-dystopian-polemic tale plays out, especially with Lawrence's increasingly troubled heroine at the fore.