There are plenty of post-apocalyptic wastelands to choose from these days. This past summer, "Oblivion," "After Earth" and "Elysium" all turned their eyes to a dystopian future, and that doesn't include any of the zombie-infested wastelands.
But for all their horrors, it's hard to think of a more sadistic future than one that sends its children into an annual fight-to-the-death on live television. And if there was anything unsettling about the first "Hunger Games" film 18 months ago, it was that no one seemed to understand how sadistic that world was.
Now, with "Catching Fire," the district-divided world of "The Hunger Games" is darker, more sober and well aware of the evil that pervades its society. Even professional peacock Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) holds a knowing stare beneath her always-outrageous makeup.
"Catching Fire" picks up sometime after the events of the first film, where embattled archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) emerged victor from the annual bloodbath, saving hometown friend and supposed love interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and defying the power of the capital in the process. In the interim, the oppressed masses of the poverty-stricken districts have been sending rumbles of rebellion into the capital city, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is having none of it. When a victory tour by Katniss and Peeta only seems to stir up resentment instead of quell it, Snow devises a new plan: a bigger and better Hunger Games, designed by new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and populated exclusively with former victors.
With tougher combatants and a budding revolution brewing outside, the stakes are raised considerably, and that tension translates well in the new film. Instead of concentrating its time on the games, "Catching Fire" wisely chooses the broader perspective, tuning in to the greater meaning behind the flawed society of the districts. As a result, a plot that could have felt redundant is clearly played out with the big picture in mind, and audiences are given a much weightier and suspenseful film.
Along the way, a number of familiar faces decorate the screen: Woody Harrelson is back as alcoholic former victor Haymitch Abernathy, Stanley Tucci brings the world's whitest set of teeth back to center stage as master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman, and rock star-turned-actor Lenny Kravitz returns as fashion designer extraordinaire Cinna (though sadly, producers have once again failed to incorporate "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" into the background of any Kravitz scenes). In addition, Liam "Yes, I'm Thor's brother" Hemsworth returns as Katniss' true-but-still-kept-at-arm's-length love, Gale.
But far from a re-hash, "Catching Fire" introduces new faces to the fray as well, including the aforementioned Seymour Hoffman (always a welcome addition), Jena Malone as the spunky former victor Johanna and Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, another former victor.
There are plenty of characters and plenty of action to go around, yet thanks to its strong sense of suspense, "Catching Fire" doesn't feel as long as its near-two-and-a-half-hour running time might suggest. Given the nature of its ending, audiences are probably more likely to be disappointed it didn't keep going. But take heart, Hunger-Fans: "Mockingjay Part 1" is set for release next year.
Director Francis Lawrence clearly has "Hunger Games" fans in mind here, almost to a fault. In spite of a few token attempts to supply backstory, "Catching Fire" assumes its audience will have retained quite a bit from the first film. Any rookies to this franchise would be well-advised to check out the first installment before taking on the sequel.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is rated PG-13 for considerable violence, mayhem and some gore. There is also some profanity (including a "bleeped" F-word or two) and some suggestive sexuality.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.