Can the Hunger Games Sequel Capitalize on its Alluring Mix of Epic Drama, Heated Action, and Dystopian Sci-Fi?

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire plays like Empire Strikes Back, picking up right where the first film left off, and dropping you on the edge of the best cliffhanger the two films have drummed up thus far. After surviving The Hunger Games in the first film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are now pawns in an elaborate state-sponsored scheme intended to quell the civil unrest their unlikely victory has unleashed. They go on a victory tour to sell their fake love story to the opulent, media-stuffed overlords who live in the capital city, as well as quell simmering tensions among the workers who populate the 12 districts that do this dystopian society’s slave work. The tour, though, turns sour, as Katniss almost inadvertently fans the flames of unrest. With a total societal meltdown pending, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and his new game master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), hatch a plan: throw them back in the ring for another round.

Like Empire, this new movie’s dramatic interest is bolstered by all of its narrative transitions: a personal story spinning into a broader, more epic-scaled drama; complications of motive, direction, and intent; and of deepening and refining the story’s central characters. We aren’t stuck in the digital, geometric dome that houses the blood thirsty Hunger Games for very long, and the film spends more time unfolding a story about loyalty against an intriguing metaphoric backdrop. It is not blood, but all the whispering, peeking, and sneaking around that draws us into scenes on high speed trains, at lavish parties, and in back corridors of capital city.

Katniss is a particularly appealing young adult character, serious and sober, loyal and stricken with an impetuous spirit that can’t abide injustice, despite the fact that she lives in a world in which injustice is the glue of the social order. It’s as if she’s too pure hearted to grasp the multifaceted complexity of her world, which makes her particularly dangerous to the state. One of the most intriguing things about the Hunger Games scenario is its existential twist: What role do mercy, compassion, friendship, and love play in an environment of inevitable death and murder? In the new film this situation isn’t limited to the realm of blood sport, but is presented as the essential problem of life in a totalitarian society: to what extent are we willing to forfeit our humanity to survive?

Lawrence endows Katniss with a gravitas and a sense of self. And the addition of director Francis Lawrence is felt; he seems to rescue the movie precisely at the moments it begins to drag, and helps to focus its intensity not merely on the action, but on the little dramatic flares. Most of the film’s problems are more connected to story than its execution. Despite the comparison to Empire Strikes Back, this world isn’t as rich, defined, or engrossing as the Star Wars epic. The games themselves are a utilitarian plot device, as interesting as watching someone play a video game, and many of the secondary characters feel canned and subplots are flat. And the film’s essential metaphor of oppression and revolution feels unsatisfyingly antiquated or misaligned. Is this a parable about globalization, or a critique of the ever-widening social gap? Either way it irons out complications by making the subjugation of the masses obvert, reinforcing the population’s understanding of itself as an oppressed society. President Snow should take a cue from the history of our own present: if you want to keep the proletariat at bay, dilute the workers into the population of reality TV-obsessed capital city.