When we last saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she’d just won the Hunger Games, saving both her and her fellow Tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), by defiantly holding out a palmful of poisonous berries. Her victory was short-lived, however, as she realized she’d royally ticked off President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and she’d have to keep up the ruse that she and Peeta were sweethearts if she wanted to survive outside the Arena.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up six months later, on the morning of their Victory Tour, on which Katniss and Peeta will travel to the 12 districts to honor the fallen Tributes and celebrate their survival. But for now, in the opening moments, things seem much like they were before the horrors of the Games, with Katniss meditatively hunting in the woods with her homemade bow and arrow—and with her unrequited true love, Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Things aren’t the same, though. For one thing, Katniss, Peeta and their alcoholic mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), reside in the nearly abandoned Victors’ Village, living in posh mansions while their friends and neighbors continue to struggle to get by. Meanwhile, there’s unrest in some of the other districts, a rebellion rumbling, and President Snow pays Katniss a personal visit to warn her that the people better believe she threatened to kill herself in the Arena for love, not in defiance of the Capitol—or else.
She tries—she really does, despite being a public-relations nightmare for their chaperone, Effie (the delightfully over-the-top Elizabeth Banks)—but it’s not enough, and after the Tour, President Snow and the new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devise a plan to get rid of Katniss and quash the rebellion once and for all: For the 75th Hunger Games, the Tributes will be plucked from those who have won the Games before.
In her signature role—though at 23 she has a rich and varied career already and will likely redefine herself many times over in the years to come—Lawrence brings the same irreverent attitude to Panem’s darling as JLaw does to the red carpet. Her eyes are hard under Cleopatra makeup as she sails through the city in her chariot, and with help from her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), now a celebrity in his own right, even Katniss’ gown for her interview with Caesar (the deliciously flamboyant Stanley Tucci) is a political statement. But at home and in the Arena, she’s tough and resourceful and passionate—a profound role model for young girls. Pining Peeta and stoic Gale fade in her shadow.
With poisonous fog, homicidal baboons and the cornucopia perched on a rocky island that spins on the Gamemaker’s whim in a lake prone to tidal waves, the steamy jungle setting of the Arena is a hotbed of psychological warfare preying on the Tributes’ worst nightmares. The Games have changed: Katniss finds herself teaming up with Finnick (Sam Claflin), the youngest Tribute to ever win when he was just 14 years old; his 80-year-old mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen); the mercurial Johanna (Jena Malone); the brilliant engineer Beetee (Jeffrey Wright); and out-of-her-gourd Wiress (Amanda Plummer). As alliances form, it’s the game board that’ll kill them.
Like the first film, Catching Fire expands the first-person narrative of the novel to offer glimpses at the behind-the-scenes machinations affecting the outcome of the Games. But especially as the plot climaxes, the action gets confusing—what are Katniss’ allies doing, and whom can she trust? As disorienting as it can be for the viewer in the moment, though, this confusion is a smart choice by director Francis Lawrence, true to the point-of-view of the books. The cliffhanger ending, on the other hand, risks being vaguely frustrating, suggesting the real action is yet to come rather than closing a chapter like the first movie did.
But there’s more at work here than plot. Working from a smartly adapted script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael DeBruyn, Francis Lawrence emphasizes the story’s cynical critique of celebrity culture, of living one’s lives and loves for the camera, and condemnation of a 1 percent who drink potions to puke during parties so they can eat more while the rest of the country is starving.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a stellar sequel and a crackerjack middle chapter (the third book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, will be released as two separate films): revisiting what’s to love about the original, upping the ante and promising even more to come.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Release date: Nov. 22, 2013