The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Katniss Everdeen is back safe from the 74th Hunger Games, though she isn't quite sound: she's clearly suffering from PTSD from the first games, is more than a little jittery, and has recurring night terrors. "I did what I had to do to survive," she rationalizes, not believing herself.
The annual games culls a teenaged boy and girl from each of Panem's dozen districts and places them in a televised fightto-the-death gladiatorial survival match, as a reminder that all citizens are at the whim of the nation's capitol. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) managed to escape the games intact with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), an acquaintance from childhood.
Her family lives in relative luxury in the victors' village, alongside Peeta and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), her occasionally sober mentor. Katniss is torn between her feelings for childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the intense experiences she had with Peeta.
But President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is none too pleased. Her and Peeta's little stunt with the berries in the first film was seen as an act of love by some citizens, but as a call to rebellion by others. There are rumblings about uprisings. Snow makes it clear that the fates of Katniss and her family hinge on her ability to keep the peace. A victors' tour does little to ease tensions.
And so with the help of a new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Snow devises a special version of the "quarter quell" games, with tributes chosen among former winners. It's a trap designed to silence Katniss, and the mockingjay symbol of rebellion, once and for all.
Second films in a trilogy are too often "fillers" that kill time between our initial curiosity and our need for resolution. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation) nicely balances stunts and spectacle with the growth of Katniss, who goes from teenaged girl to young woman with a wider worldview. This time Katniss isn't just fighting for her own life, but the lives of her family and everyone in her district. Lawrence, once again the heart of the film, is perfect whether she's playing it strong, despondent, conflicted or kick-ass.
Supporting performances are improved from the first film. The boys were a little milquetoast the first time around: here Gale is a little more potent and Peeta a little less annoying. Effie's (Elizabeth Banks) outrageous outfits are a highlight, and Stanley Tucci's
teeth have never been whiter as over-bronzed TV host Caesar Flickerman. For the first hour the film is less about action than it is about show, the excesses of the Capitol; but soon enough we're transported into the high-tech games arena.
Things get dark in Catching Fire (in case children fighting each other to the death in the original wasn't dark enough for you): there are executions and public floggings, and discussions about entire populations being wiped out. Katniss is still famed for her archery skills, as she goes up against rabid monkeys, poison gas and blood rain, and seasoned competitors.
Lawrence's changing expression in the final frame shows Katniss' readiness for battle of a new kind, and starts the clock for fans anxiously awaiting the third film. If you're new to the franchise do yourself a favour and read Suzanne Collins' trilogy or brush up on the first film; otherwise you'll be lost in the wilderness, too.