“The Hunger Games” succeeded on, as much as anything else, the genius of its science fiction concept. Susan Collins’ 2008 novel and its 2012 film adaptation conjured up the dystopian society Panem, where the privileged denizens of the Capitol exploit the hard labors of a dozen outer districts to support their luxurious lifestyles. To keep the provincial have-nots in check, the Capitol elite have devised a deadly contest — the Hunger Games, in which each outer district sends two young “tributes” to fight to the death in a televised spectacle.
This core idea wasn’t exactly plausible. (Would forced death games really sow fear in an enslaved citizenry?) But it offered a smorgasbord of young-adult-friendly, real-world parallels for practically every aspect of modern life: the brutal achievement struggles of the modern education system that pits student against student, the cruelty and exploitation inherent in social media and reality television, the heartless authoritarianism of a world run by disinterested adults, the envies of small-town adolescents and the condescension of cosmopolitan elites, the wide and politically contrived gaps in social class and income, and the ruthless and careless ways that social and political systems seem to work for the chosen few while oppressing the rest. If you’re 15 and upset with the world, it hardly matters whether the idea makes all that much sense. What matters is that it feels right.
Last year’s adaptation of Ms. Collins’ first book effectively captured its violent, tumultuous essence in not-so-bloody PG-13-friendly detail. This year’s sequel, an adaptation of the follow-up, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” trades on the same sorts of adolescent fears and frustrations. Although it is competent and watchable throughout, it never quite escapes the gravitational pull of its predecessor’s great concept. The sequel’s approach is to reuse and recycle, expanding the world only when necessary.
Like its predecessor, “Catching Fire” begins in the blackened coal country of District 12. There, the film’s young protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), goes bow-hunting in the woods, and maintains a quiet, chaste love affair with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Katniss is the winner of the previous Hunger Games, along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), with whom she faked true love in order to save both of their lives.
The win normally would give the two of them protected status. But the powers that be in the Capitol want Katniss destroyed, so they order a special Hunger Games — one in which the players are all former victors. So it’s back to the games for Peeta and Katniss.
An extra plot thread weaves in a brewing revolution, but like its young protagonists, the sequel cannot escape the pull of the games, which provided so much of the action and suspense in the first film. Director Francis Lawrence stages the games with occasional bursts of visual flair, and the large cast of supporting players — including Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman — all do excellent work. But their efforts cannot overcome our nagging sense that, like all the game’s players, we’ve been here before.
TITLE: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
CREDITS: Directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
RATING: PG-13 for sci-fi violence
RUNNING TIME: 146 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS