"There are no winners, only survivors."
Those haunting words, spoken by a former "Hunger Games" victor, sum up the sobering truth about the games. In a post-apocalyptic North American society, teenagers — known as "tributes" — are forced to fight in a yearly televised death match as punishment for the society's failed rebellion years ago. The last tribute standing has to pay a high price for his or her victory: a lifetime of lingering trauma, guilt and isolation.
That's the kind of fallout Katniss Everdeen is facing. In the first "Hunger Games" movie, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the other tribute from her district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), managed to beat the system by pretending to be "star-crossed lovers" and convincing the gamemakers to change the rules and allow them to be named joint victors. However, their act of defiance has begun to fan the flames of rebellion in the districts of Panem, and Panem's President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is beginning to fear the power Katniss has as a symbol. The Hunger Games may be over, but her life is still very much in danger.
Although I loved the first movie based on the "Hunger Games" book series by Suzanne Collins, the sequel, "Catching Fire," is even better, managing to be both more epic and more personal. This time around, the special effects are bigger, the scope is larger, and the stakes are higher. It's a blockbuster that works as entertainment and a political statement.
"Catching Fire" opens with Katniss struggling to pick up the pieces of her life after winning the Hunger Games. A "victory tour" meant to celebrate her and Peeta's win only turns her into more of a revolutionary symbol. So, President Snow changes the rules of the Hunger Games again — for the next games, the competitors will be selected from the pool of existing victors, even though these victors were promised they'd be immune from future "reapings." Katniss and Peeta will have to compete again, but this time they'll be fighting hardened warriors, not fellow teenagers. Katniss must be even more careful, as Snow has made it very clear that if she doesn't cooperate, he will harm her family and her best friend/maybe more-than-a-friend back home, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
Although the first third of the film perhaps could have been tightened up just a tad, the political drama and slow-burn build-up is just as gripping as the battles that take place during the "all-star" Hunger Games. While the brewing revolution in the districts was more in the background in the novel, director Francis Lawrence (taking over from Gary Ross) wisely brings it more to the forefront. He forces us to examine how close our own culture mirrors the world depicted in "Catching Fire": are we more like the oppressed districts or the oblivious citizens of the "Capitol," where our celebrity-obsessed, entertainment-centered culture blinds us to the real problems around us?
Like the first film, the sequel has a fine cast of supporting actors, including a few new faces. Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss and Peeta's inebriated mentor who's a more skilled strategist than he first appears. Sutherland brings a sense of elegant, terrifying menace to his role as President Snow, and the script gives Elizabeth Banks a chance to add more nuance to her character Effie Trinket, Katniss and Peeta's ditzy fashion-plate handler. Philip Seymour Hoffman also joins the cast as Plutarch Heavensbee, the mysterious new head gamemaker who's trying to play Snow's game and also maybe a game of his own.
However, the heart and soul of the film is, once again, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Lawrence truly is "a girl on fire," as her character is labeled in the film. Lawrence and the film makers don't try to smooth out the character's rough edges. Katniss is tough, has poor people skills, and is emotionally distant. And yet, she also has a powerful sense of inner strength, and she's a stubborn survivor in the face of impossible odds. Lawrence feels authentic and utterly believable in the role. As Katniss has to pretend to be a giddy, love-struck victor, we never lose sight of the sense of pain haunting her eyes.
"Catching Fire" should please fans of the book series but also offers plenty for general audiences, as well. As soon as I walked out of the theater, I wanted to go and watch it again. This film has easily earned a place near the top of my "best of 2013" list. :)