Nov. 22, 2013 at 5:46 AM ET
The Hunger Games aren't over, and as fans know, the odds are never in your favor. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are back in battle starting Friday, when the second film in the series, "Catching Fire," hits theaters.
Let's be honest here. If you haven't seen "The Hunger Games," you're not going to have any interest in "Catching Fire" -- which is good, because the film jumps right in with no background given. And if you're a card-carrying member of either Team Peeta or Team Gale (Liam Hemsworth), you've already got your tickets.
But if you're sitting on the District 12 fence about this one, here are six reasons why you should pack your bow and arrows and head to the theater. (Spoilers ahead.)
1) No over-explaining
The lack of background may make the movie less accessible to newbies, but who walks in to a franchise like this on the second film? Because the whole concept of Panem and its 12 districts doesn't need to be re-explained, "Catching Fire" catches fire more quickly than the original. Woody Harrelson's wonderful, quippy Haymitch Abernathy doesn't need to be reintroduced. It's never restated that he was a past "Hunger Games" victor, and not having to rehash those kind of facts helps the plot flow.
2) Tougher competitors
The Quarter Quell competition pits past winners against each other, so everyone in the fight has a battle-honed talent -- there's not a lot of cannon fodder, so to speak. Book fans will welcome Finnick, Beetee, Wiress, Johanna, Mags and the rest, all notable opponents who get varying amounts of screen time. You'll be seeing some of them again.
3) Powerhouse actors
The new gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (played excellently by Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman), not only masterminds the Quarter Quell, he's got some other schemes up his sleeve. Hoffman's rarely in blockbusters but he adds a nice level of dignity and calm to this often over-the-top franchise. And "Hunger Games" newcomer Jeffrey Wright, who plays Beetee, also shines. "What can we do to help?" he's asked. "Keep me alive for the next six hours," he quips. "That would be extremely helpful."
4) Fabulous fashions
The addition of some serious thespians doesn't mean "Hunger Games" is forgetting its over-the-top fashions and sets. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) goes full Marie Antoinette again, with purple Slinky-like bracelets in one scene, monarch butterflies on her arms in another. Katniss wears another "Girl on Fire" gown that, paired with a similar Peeta outfit, catches fire in a much less laughable way than in the first film. And her spectacular wedding dress that turns into a crowd-rallying Mockingjay costume is a sight to behold indeed. That's not even to mention the everyday citizens of The Capitol, who all look as if Molly "Pretty in Pink" Ringwald made their prom dresses.
5) The Arena battles are better than ever
The actual Games, which take place in a new version of the Arena, are fascinating if too short. Poisonous fog, fanged monkeys, blood rain, force fields that look like giant waffle irons and more make it a deadly place to be. And there's always the prisoner's dilemma -- the tributes must cooperate to live longer, but in the end, they are all trying to kill each other, and everyone knows it. It's a "Survivor"-style reality show taken to its logical -- and deadly -- extreme.
6) A deeper dive into Panem's crazy universe
Katniss and Peeta are hauled around on a painful victory tour, visiting the various districts and delivering scripted, flowery homages to the various deceased tributes, their every move scrutinized by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). As you can imagine, it doesn't end well -- but we're given a more complete look at the various oppressed areas who are being kept under the Capitol's well-manicured thumb. And of course, there is plenty of debauchery in the let-them-eat-cake Capitol, where partygoers even have the modern equivalent of a vomitorium -- a drink that makes them throw up so they can indulge in more treats.