Posted November 24, 2013 by D. K. Holm
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a hit and, thus, for the short term, at least, movie reviews are irrelevant to the masses who are apparently crowding the theaters for the latest installment of the franchise born from Suzanne Collins’s young adult dystopian trilogy. Catching Fire presents mostly the same story as the first film, but speedier and with a slight twist as previous Hunger Games winners Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (the grim-jawed Josh Hutcherson) cause trouble for the capitol of Panem, the post-war-rebellion version of the United States, after their previous victory, which inspires small scale rebellions across the nation, mostly evident via graffiti.
The “same story with a twist” approach is essential to most franchises. Viewers want to imbibe the characters they know in a similar tale; but there needs to be a fresh component as well, something unexpected but consistent with the created world. Suzanne Collins comes from TV writing, especially for kid shows, and probably knows her way around an addictive franchise. Viewers are aware that in the next entry there will be another Hunger Game of some kind, and that the ante must be upped. Here, the surprise is that the winners of past Games are gathered on an island where they fight less each other than a succession of horrors crafted by the game devisers. Here, the latest Game starts about an hour and twenty minutes into the action. After some red shirts die, the remaining members we follow find that the island is segmented into 12 pie slices, comprising a huge clock with timed challenges that include a poisonous fog, deadly monkey-like creatures, voice-mimicking bats, tidal waves, and others. Like the first film, the story comes in predictable parts, only faster, since – like Katniss – we are already familiar with the process. First there is the “world building,” with Katniss in her depressed District 12, with her mother and sister, and the boys vying for her attention; then the “problem” arises, which is that Katniss’s tricky victory in the previous game causes insurrectionary talk among the masses and problems of control for President Snow (Donald Sutherland). There is the “confrontation scene,” in which Snow compels Katniss to go on the tour with her official public love interest, the conflicted Peeta. Rebellion ensues, and Snow comes up with a new games idea with new game deviser Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who brings much needed understatement to the film). Thereupon follows the lottery selection of the gamesters (rigged, of course), the train trip to the capital, the ceremonies, the dinners, the training, the public TV interviews. All this is followed by the big game itself, all operating in lockstep as rigid as the clockwork evil island. The surprise occurs in the aftermath of the game.
Jennifer Lawrence is, as always, the inspiring anchor for the film, but armchair-casting thought-experiments suggest that Catching Fire, if not the series as a whole, is otherwise not perfectly cast. All the others are adequate, but Sutherland is an old hand at this sort of thing and is blandly predictable when he should be scary (perhaps a great “anger actor” such as Titus Welliver would have been more commanding), while Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are practically animatronic beneath layers of makeup and enhancements, lacking the convincing insincerity that such parts suggest (it would have been funny to cast Jeff Probst or another real “reality game show” host in the part; baring that, Christopher MacDonald is excellent at oozing slick accomodation). Poor Banks can’t act her way out of the accoutrements. In other areas, characters are either wasted (Cinna), or odd, such as Amanda Plummer, the original crazy pixie girl.
Where futuristic tales really stumble, though, is in the “world building.” In this regard, Catching Fire is Logan’s Runny. The holograph TVs are old hat, the clothes are made “futuristic” by having weird shirt collars, or bits of plastic pasted to a face, which was what Chris Marker did to suggest the future as long ago as La jetée in 1962. And why do people take the train everywhere when there are obviously super powerful flight craft available?
I first became aware of the Hunger Games series through a terrific article in the New Yorker by Laura Miller about the vogue for dystopian YA books. As movies, The Hunger Games series intensifies but also streamlines the sociological aspect of the books’ zeitgeist zinging properties. Like The Truman Show, there is a big director manipulating the games, lives, and world. Everyone is visible on CCTV; ultimately, there are no secrets. To its credit, the series seems pro-revolutionary and critical of passive acceptance. And given the author’s Hollywood background, the series is also a critique of contemporary show business. Citizens are distracted by fake romantic relationships among chosen elites that palliate the public. TV becomes the locus of spectacles, “battles royale” whose moral implications the films don’t have time to expire (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the action and the objects in the film can “preach” better). Most dystopian books tell the same story. Either the future is one of immense government control, or there is chaos, with roving bands vying for dominance. The Hunger Games remixes this by having both at the same time, with a central government that watches over the land but where within some districts there is a form of hidden anarchy, black markets, and hardscrabble living.
Given the popularity of the movies it’s safe to guess that they appeal to both boys and girls. This is both good news, and surprising, because – to riot in crude stereotype – boys play video games while girls read books. The books seem particularly market researched for young female readership. The novels focus on elements that the popular imagination assumes concern most women: eating, food, and clothes. Descriptions of food fill the pages: its acquisition, preparation, appearance, the differences between foods consumed in different regions and social strata, and thoughts of hunger, along with elaborate detailing of costume creation, presentation, reaction, and so forth fill the paragraphs and pages of these books. And after all, they are called The Hunger Games. In short, the films and books concentrate on major concerns of the day in the guise of futurism: media, security, privacy, food, and clothes.
The direction for Catching Fire is better, as most reviews exclaim with relief, revealing a new-found distaste for the approach of Gary Ross, the predecessor in the series. But the direction isn’t all that good. Francis Lawrence is the Austrian-born former music video director who scored with I Am Legend, possibly due mostly to featuring the top star of the time. He also helmed Constantine and Water for Elephants, on the surface an odd collection of films to qualify for the Hunger Games series. I Am Legend perhaps revealed that Mr. Lawrence could handle contemporary screen icons, as did Constantine, which starred Keanu Reeves, Shia LaBeouf, and Tilda Swinton among other potentially hazardous alchemy; but the show also affirmed that Mr. Lawrence could handle adaptations of science fiction literature (the script for Catching Fire is credited to Michael Arndt, but under a pseudonym, after having written Little Miss Sunshine and several animated movies). Water for Elephants probably revealed to the honchos that he had a flair for sensitive love stories, essential for a YA tale. But The Godfather or Citizen Kane this is not. The emphasis is on story and event rather than visual surprise and alluring aesthetics. Camera set ups are traditional Hollywood-TV fare: first this person talks, than that person talks, and then both people are shown talking. Talk about starvation! Catching Fire is sadly lacking in visual nutrition.