The Trouble with Katniss – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 1, 2013

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As surprise box office juggernauts go, you can do a lot worse than The Hunger Games franchise.  Though the first film was flimsy and mostly tacky, there was at least an interesting concept – brutal state repression to protect the wealthiest individuals and the moral backflips one has to do when forced to kill others, and the grotesquerie of Reality Television bloodsport.  None of this is particularly new, and as I wrote in my review of the first entry, it’s too hard to ignore the similarities to Battle Royale, a film which is in every far superior.  Still, a popular film about income inequality that is intent on sowing the seeds of revolution is timely and, for someone with my politics, nothing to be sniffed at.  That said, even though the broad strokes are good, there’s a trouble with the sequel Catching Fire, and though this may just be a symptom of “the middle book” syndrome, it’s hard to get too excited because of it.  Despite Jennifer Lawrence being more than capable in the role, and the fact that this film is an improvement over its predecessor in almost every way, the biggest sore spot is Katniss Everdeen herself.  

First, a quick synopsis and the requisite warning about SPOILERS, which will abound:  Having become well loved across the districts given her seeming act of love by refusing to kill Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is now being sent off on a press tour that her mentor, Hamich (Woody Harrelson, laconically drunk and injecting a somewhat forced bit of levity into a relatively humourless enterprise), warns will last the rest of her life.  The president, played again by Donald Sutherland, warns her that he knows there’s no real love between her and Peeta, and their act was not for love, but of defiance.  He is intent on ensuring that message does not spread, so the romance has to be played up and the script has to be followed to quell any stirrings of another revolt.  Despite her efforts, things get out of hand, and as a tactic to discredit her, the government steps up violent repression in the districts.  This is suggested by the new game designer, Plutarch (I shit you not that is his name, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is more interested in destroying Katniss than anything else…or so it seems!  When things fail, they institute a special anniversary games that brings back previous winners from each district.  This gives us the action set piece I suppose we were waiting for, though at least it is directed with a modicum more of panache than in the original.  

The first half is the most interesting, as there are glimpses of the painted Mockingjay dotted around the outlying, impoverished districts that suggests a burbling discontent.  It also gives us the most affecting scene of the franchise so far, in which an old man defies the storm troopers by giving his district salute before Katniss and co. are whisked off a stage and a soldier puts a gun to the man’s head as the door is shutting.  Here, then is, perhaps my biggest concern with the project:  Katniss sees the repression as something to be avoided, and spends the rest of the time going along with the government wishes in an effort to prevent loss of life.  She wants, as they say, a revolution without a revolution, and though the arc of the second film hints at being her progression to political enlightenment, the narrative largely denies her any real agency and thus, room to actually progress.  This is a function of the plot, which wants to save it’s big surprise for the end (and it is, in fairness, a pretty exciting reveal, even if it just seems to end, as middle chapters are wont to do), but despite her resourcefulness and the way in which she doesn’t seem to care too much about the hokey love triangle pressing in around her, Katniss is denied the opportunity to gain a more aggressive political conscience because she’s denied all the facts.

This plays out in the less morally interesting but more visually impressive Games section.  As opposed to just a forest we now have a tropical climate with a rotating stone pie in the center.  There’s not so much tension in the fight against other players because, in a helpful dodge from the act of brutal killing in a PG-13 Young Adult adaptation, the gang of allies spend most of their time dodging poisonous fog and a cadre of vicious baboons.  This is, again, partly because the story doesn’t give Katniss all the information to give her agency, and as such she’s a largely passive action heroine.  Still, the inclusion of Jeffrey Wright and especially Jena Malone gives the Game itself a boost of personality, and the effects are significantly better this time around.

The design continues to be functional if uninspired, save of course for the Capital, where it feels like everyone was given room to just let go.  Back are the opulent foods and rooms, the absurd multi-coloured 18th Century First Estate wigs, and the incredible costumes that look like something Jean Paul Gaultier puked up after a heavy night of tripping.  The ancillary characters get some minor development, especially Effie (Elizabeth Banks) who starts to feel the weight of the cruelty with which she’s complicit.  Minor Character MVP once again goes to Stanley Tucci’s creepy host Caesar, who seems to have found a way to whiten his teeth more and give off an even more inhuman cackle, almost suggesting something inside of him is breaking but his professionalism won’t allow it.  That’s my reading, anyway, and though it’s probably not accurate, Tucci’s performance is so hammily over the top it invites you to ponder.

Francis Lawrence does an able job picking up where Gary Ross left off, though it wasn’t a difficult act to follow.  The script, co-written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael DeBruyn does what it can, even if some of the dialogue is thuddingly cornball.  Hutcherson is something of a lightweight, but in fairness, so is his character.  Lawrence approaches Katniss with an admirable seriousness that doesn’t let on about the ridiculous surrounding her.  At over 2 and a half hours, the film is slightly bloated, and yet it also moves at a more enjoyable clip than the first entry.  The finale involving copper wire and a tree that gets hit by lightning finally gives the franchise something spectacle-worthy, however brief.  Overall it might be unfair to criticize the middle chapter for lacking conclusions or just following the script to set up what should be a barnstorming two-part finale, but even if the story can’t move where it should, the characters have an obligation to make up for it.  Katniss, unfortunately, doesn’t do it, and it’s a symptom of the rather broad-strokes politics involved that it’s never really considered important for her to engage politically.  It’s admirable in its way, but it’s also simplistic and silly.  Bring on Mockingjay, I guess.

-M

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