Wait, what? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? It certainly was with 2012’s “The Hunger Games,” an acceptable but impersonal big-studio adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s hit young-adult novel. As is often the case, that first film was cautiously directed (by Gary Ross) in order to protect the hoped-for movie franchise and attendant profits.
Mission accomplished, and with the sequel, the gloves come off. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a muscular, engrossing, unexpectedly bleak epic of oppression and insurrection, directed with dramatic urgency and a skilled eye by Francis Lawrence (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend”). Set in the fascist future state of Panem, the movie takes pains to show its young mass audience what living under a totalitarian dictatorship might look and feel like. But the sharpest aspects of “Catching Fire” — the parts that sting — play as an allegory for today. Very few people will take in this spectacle of a society amusing itself to death, of “reality games” and the vapid media hysteria that surrounds them, and not draw a parallel to our own televised bread and circuses. At its best, “Catching Fire” is a blockbuster that bites the culture that made it.
And all this before the actual games get started, an hour into the sequel. If you haven’t seen the first film or read the books, all you need to know is — well, a lot. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the brooding teen huntress from District 12, won the annual killing contest of the title by threatening a suicide pact with her teammate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and President Snow (Donald Sutherland, quietly malevolent) is not pleased. The new film opens, as the book does, with the foxy old dictator appearing in Katniss’s living room for a threatening chat on the eve of her and Peeta’s victory tour of the districts. Convince the populace you’re in love, Snow orders, and distract them from open revolt. Fail, and Katniss’s mother (Paula Malcomson), sister (Willow Shields), and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the man she really loves — sort of; it’s complicated — will die.
The victory tour is the first evidence that “Catching Fire” will be more weighty and unsparing in its depiction of a militant future than “The Hunger Games.” A visit to the largely African-American District 11, home of the first film’s Rue, underscores how symbolic Katniss has already become and how dangerous it is to acknowledge that symbolism; the sequence ends with an image that searingly reaches back to photos in our own national memory banks.
Everything about the sequel feels bigger, more charged with import, and seen with greater resolve (if only because the filmmakers forgo the trendy shaky-cam of the first movie). When the heroes arrive in the steely Oz of the Capitol, its effete inhabitants are viewed with a mixture of mockery and alarm. The undisputed star of these sequences is Stanley Tucci’s unctuous TV host, Caesar Flickerman, who suggests a Day-Glo Ryan Seacrest, if that’s not redundant. Tucci conveys the lethal banality of a society terrified to face the truth; even his smile beams with extra-strength malice.
I know a lot of older moviegoers who shied from “The Hunger Games” because they thought it was a movie that glorified “kids killing kids.” On the contrary, this is a story about a decadent culture pitting its children against each other, the better to divide and conquer. While the sequel eventually has to head back to the arena, it’s even less inclined to celebrate bloodlust than before. In his bid to eliminate Katniss without creating a martyr, Snow announces a special Hunger Games made up solely of previous victors. This has the double advantage of scuttling the whole child-violence issue and introducing some welcome older character actors.
They include such stalwarts as Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as Beetee and Wiress, two asocial geniuses whose brains set them apart from the other contestants’ brawn. Philip Seymour Hoffman drops in from the Land of Difficult Movies as Plutarch Heavensbee, a master gamemaker with an ironic gleam in his eye. The most unexpected treat may be Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, a contestant who’s older, wiser, and much angrier about the whole charade than Katniss dares to be. Once the unwilling players are deposited in the new arena — a jungle valley with an oddly segmented lagoon — “Catching Fire” mostly avoids armed conflict for the dramatic suspense of alliance and survival. “Remember who the real enemy is,” is a line said more than once, and the movie wants its audience to remember too.
The core cast performs ably: Hutcherson’s Peeta has acquired a lanky self-possession, Woody Harrelson hits his marks with wit and professionalism as mentor Haymitch Abernathy, and Elizabeth Banks actually gets you to feel sorry — a little — for the ridiculous Effie Trinket. As for Lawrence, any blockbuster series would be lucky to have her. Katniss carries the entire load of underground resistance on her shoulders — in one gloriously defiant scene, she seems to take wing with it — and the actress is able to register both the responsibility and unfairness of that duty. She could be this series’ Christ figure (and the director seems to suggest the comparison in a striking visual toward the end) if she weren’t surrounded by fellow rebels bent toward the same end. Alone among this movie season’s ambitious entries, “Catching Fire” is about unseen collaborations and secret teamwork rather than a lone hero conquering all.
Yes, there’s a bit of kissing, but in general the whole does-she-love-Peeta-or-Gale subplot is downplayed, and, besides, Hemsworth’s Gale has yet to acquire anything resembling a character. (The actor’s the only one here who seems to think he’s in a “Twilight” sequel.) The other major problem with “Catching Fire” is its much-too-hurried wrap-up and absurd cliffhanger ending, flaws that have been ported directly from the book. Such are the necessities of the modern Hollywood machine that we can’t enjoy one satisfying film but have to be hustled on, ever hungry, to the next installment. Still, this is as darkly powerful as mainstream fantasy moviemaking gets these days. “Catching Fire” is 2½ hours long, but the mark of its strength and craft is that it feels like it’s just getting started when the end credits hit.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.