Katniss Everdeen's life is over. The life she once knew, anyhow. The protagonist of The Hunger Games survived her country's eponymous battle to the death, but it's not cause for celebration. In Hunger Games: Catching Fire, we find her having a horrific flashback in her "safe" place: the secret hunting grounds on the fringes of the district where she grew up.
Like the first Hunger Games film, Catching Fire presents a brutal vision of the future. It's the year after Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) win the Hunger Games, and the spoiled bigwigs in the Capitol are still sapping impoverished districts of resources and making children kill each other. There have never been two winners of the Hunger Games before, but Katniss spared Peeta's life by pretending to be in love with him. Now both are on a "victory tour" meant to remind everyone they're under the Capitol's boot heel. Katniss must feign passion for Peeta or she'll be branded a rebel. President Snow (a scarily smarmy Donald Sutherland) even tells her she must keep up the "love-crazed besotted schoolgirl routine." But the masses are upset she changed the game's rules. Before long, riots break out.
Luckily for viewers, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is not a classic hero. She is a pragmatist in a tough world. "I did what I had to do to survive," she says of the Games. This is not something heroes say in the movies. She's a marvelous cutdown of the preposterous antics that often pass for heroism in Hollywood.
In Catching Fire, our hero's main battle is with herself. She wants to protect her family, yet she cannot fake her feelings. And while disregarding rules seems to be in her DNA, blowing off the tour is not an option if she wants to stay alive. So she presses on and grows into herself in a way she might not have chosen otherwise.
In addition to being an unconventional coming-of-age story, Catching Fire is a devastating indictment of pop culture. There is a disgusting spectacle involving unctuous TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his supernaturally white teeth. The film also shows how typical teen-girl romance movies are rife with falsehoods and takes to task the willful ignorance of the rich. How do Capitol-dwellers allow themselves to live in luxury while poor children die nearby? As the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), tells Katniss at an obscenely lavish party, "If you abandon your moral judgment, it can be fun."
I can't exactly say that Catching Fire is "fun," then. But with its excellent combination of sci-fi, adventure and thorny sociological questions, it's an enormously rewarding drama in the guise of popcorn entertainment.