Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

My gravest concern with Catching Fire (2013) is that it never quite does. 

This sequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games takes ninety lugubrious -- if earnest -- minutes to get to the film’s central action and when it does so the action is a straight-up regurgitation of the previous film’s arena game show environs, only this time with no clear winner…only losers. 

What’s more, the involvement of the central character, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), in the new “Quarter Quell” games makes no brand of sense whatsoever, especially given the film’s clever, even knowing dialogue about Everdeen’s value/threat to President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) regime.

In other words, if President Snow were any sort of fearsome and intelligent leader at all, he would follow the sage advice of his new game designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and destroy Katniss outside the games, via the auspices of propaganda.

As Plutarch deviously suggests, Snow could transform this young woman of the woods and dirt into a celebrity fairy princess of sorts, thus negating her “common folks” credibility, and simultaneously subtracting her worth in the rebellion’s eyes.

Of course, Snow doesn’t do that, because this (blockbuster) film must, in the end find a way to get the audience -- and Katniss -- back to the Hunger Games arena…no matter what. 

Yet to make that eventuality occur, you can practically hear the narrative cogs and wheels groaning under the strain.

In terms of the original The Hunger Games, I’ll re-post my original review later today. But in broad strokes, I felt the first film’s biggest strength and biggest weakness simultaneously involved casting.

Jennifer Lawrence was (and remains…) a strong, compelling central figure as Katniss.

But on the other hand, all the teens who served as Tributes in the 74th annual games had so much muscle mass that it was difficult to buy into the reality that they arose and grew-up in an era of scarcity and starvation. The narrative told us they did so, but the visuals revealed that these kids grew up in close proximity to the local gym.

To Catching Fire’s credit, it doesn’t make the same mistake. Lawrence remains a power-house performer who galvanizes attention and projects levels of complexity, and the regurgitation of the games scenario in the last act features folks of all ages, shapes and sizes, and so doesn’t look like a casting audition at the CW gone violently wrong.

Last week, I wrote about Veronica Mars (2014) and about how the film industry could use more films featuring a strong female lead character. Katniss clearly fits that bill well, and so I would definitely recommend the sequel on that basis.

In Lawrence’s hands, Katniss is never less than intriguing to watch. Like Veronica, Katniss is not a princess, and she doesn’t have a pony. In fact, Katniss must always be the very antithesis of a princess in her life. To make her a princess would be to destroy her, and that’s a message I can get readily behind.

But despite the presence of Lawrence in her career-making role, the saga has yet to provide the actress a coherent script that makes full use of her abilities.

Still, I find it admirable that in its own small way, Catching Fire attempts to forge a social critique about celebrity culture, and its inherent corruptness or emptiness. The film would have been even stronger if  it had pursued those points more assiduously.

“I don’t want to kill you. I want us to be friends.”

A year after the 74th  Hunger Games, victor Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) still suffers from survivor’s guilt. She also feels ambivalent about choosing between the two men in her life, agreeable Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and alpha male Gale (Liam Hemsworth),

But President Snow (Sutherland) presents Katniss with graver concerns. After Katniss’s show of defiance and independence in the games, the districts are threatening to rise up against the totalitarian ruler.  Snow demands that Katniss serve his agenda, lest it become necessary to wage war against her home, District 12.

To save lives, Katniss agrees to Snow’s terms, and decides to marry Peeta as a show of her obedience and loyalty.

But when Gale is injured by Snow’s shock-troopers Katniss intervenes, and reveals her true colors. An angry President Snow promptly orders up a diabolical twist in the long-standing Hunger Games, this time known as “The Quarter Quells.” 

This year, tribunes shall be selected from among former victors.

In short order, Peeta and Katniss are back in the games fighting for their lives and their freedom.

They must go through training again, find new allies, and prepare themselves for the worst.

On the day of the games, they are dropped into the arena, now in a tropical setting, and must contend with fierce baboons, spinning island rocks, and poison gas…

People are looking at you, Katniss. You've given them an opportunity."

There’s a great idea lurking in Catching Fire, and it often attempts to come to the forefront. Basically, that idea concerns the emptiness of celebrity culture. For instance, at one point, Katniss is told that she is famous, and she replies, tersely, “Famous for what? Killing people?”

In a celebrity culture, it doesn’t matter why one is famous, only the fact of fame itself.

The Kardasshians, Paris Hilton, Honey Boo-Boo, the Duck Dynasty family and (the recently-deceased) fellow with the 132 pound scrotum all prove this point rather nicely. There is no compelling reason for them to be famous since they all seem absent of talent of any kind. 

But these folks are famous nonetheless. 

For some reason, our society wants us to look at them, and keep looking.

But why? 

What is their “value” to the corporate-owned media?

And to us as viewers or consumers of that media?

Catching Fire attempts to tackle this issue, and one scene in particular really does well with the concept.  In fact, the film momentarily teeters on brilliance when Plutarch outlines his scheme to destroy Katniss.

He tells Snow not to kill the famous icon, Katniss, but rather turn the State’s camera to her constantly, like a 24-hour reality show.

Thus the people will see her trying on wedding gowns, attending parties and so forth. Thus the message (interspersed with footage of uprisings being quelled…) will be that she is one of the fancy ones; one of the elite. She will be seen as compromised, co-opted.

To actually see Plutarch’s plan enacted would have made for a great genre film, I suspect, and would have presented Katniss with a new and fascinating set of challenges.  She’s already conquered the bow -- as demonstrated in a vivid training sequence involving attacking holograms -- but what about the adoring press?

What would she do if a mountain of wealth were thrown at her?

If President Snow were to shower District 12 with wealth?

It would have been fascinating to see Katniss tempted by wealth and fame, and have to fight back against the power of the capitol in a material sense.

In this case, the “hunger” game would have been about the “hunger” for material things, for the safety and security that comes from wealth.  She says she isn't interested in jewels or wealth in the film...but has she ever been faced with them? Awash in them?

Would Katniss have been able to continue her campaign of resistance if Snow got Prim into the best school in the capitol?

Alas Catching Fire doesn’t think of such things. In no time at all, Snow drops Plutarch’s clever plan, and instead decides to send Katniss back to the arena for the Quarter Quells.

This is not very smart.

After all, Katniss achieved her fame in that domain. She survived the games, and become the symbol of the resistance through her experience on national television, and in the arena.

Knowing that, why put her in the exact same position again? Where she could again influence millions of people through her behavior?

Talk about making the same mistake twice…

Snow has nothing to gain by throwing Katniss to the lions this time around, and especially since his people could have the same response to her feats. 

Had he been thinking more clearly and effectively, Snow would have escorted Katniss’s family out of District 12 and moved them into a castle in the Capitol. 

He would have asked Katniss for her thoughts about how he could make the people happy. He would have truly made her “a friend,” in the eyes of the people, negating her power as a symbol of the peoples’ struggle.

Also, it’s baffling why Plutarch -- secretly Katniss’s ally --would propose the whole “make her a celebrity” strategy, given that it makes so much sense and seems so efficient. It’s better to rob Katniss of her currency as a symbol, than to make her a martyr, but why would someone on her side suggest something so diabolical?

Because he knows Snow is an idiot and won’t listen to any counsel but his own?

No, there’s another reason, and it is called Screenwriting 101.  Virtually every blockbuster sequel – book or film -- must apparently be obligated to re-stage “popular” moments from the first “chapter” of the saga.  

So we get an underwhelming return to the arena in Catching Fire that makes no sense at all. 

What’s worse is that after we have waited so long to get back to the arena, the game itself feels half-hearted.  We get several deaths, but no conclusion, and no victor at the end.  This denouement reveals what I already suspected: the games are, essentially, a time waster in the movie.

To put this matter another way, Catching Fire takes the better part of ninety minutes to get us right back to where we started in The Hunger Games, and then, instead of giving us a victory or defeat for Katniss, just whisks her away from the arena and ends the movie. 

Why bother with telling us the rules of the new game, or making us weigh the allegiance of new allies and enemies if the games are going to simply end without closure or resolution?

Why not instead have made the book and the movie about Katniss legitimately joining the resistance movement?  Seeing her do that would have felt more like a step-forward and not merely a regurgitation of scenes we’ve already seen before.

Another problem with Catching Fire is that the writers don’t always trust audiences to get what they are “saying” about the characters.  How many scenes do we need of Effie (Elizabeth Banks) crying and apologizing to Katniss, for example? 

We get the point from one short scene that she has had her faith in the system shattered, and that through “knowing” Katniss, Effie has seen the degeneracy of both the games and the president.

But the movie shows us this scene once, and then it shows it to us again, just in case we didn’t get it.

In a movie that is two-hours and thirty-four minutes, it would be nice to have those two minutes back. Some judicious editing seems to be in order.

Catching Fire is very lucky indeed to have Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role, revealing and exploring many sides of an intriguing character. It’s rewarding to watch Katniss no matter what she’s doing, because she is an independent, fiercely loyal person.

“You’re a strangely dislikable person,” a character notes at one point, of the franchise’s hero.

 Isn’t that wonderful?

That description is true only in the sense that Katniss does nothing to please those around her. Instead, she does only the things that she must do to stay alive, and to preserve her family and her district. She isn’t going to make nice about that fact, either.

Katniss’s best scene in the film occurs, in my opinion, when she applies logic to a statement made by Snow about the general instability of his administration. Her remark isn’t a quip or a wisecrack so much as an arrow straight through the heart, cutting right to the point. 

Quite simply, I can’t find any grounds to quibble with the presentation here of Katniss, or Lawrence’s acting. I hope, indeed, that young people are widely attracted to Katniss Everdeen as a role model because she is an engaged, intelligent, resourceful person. 

Both Katniss and Lawrence are too good for such a middling, confused, long-winded, and incoherent script. The movie doesn’t do either of them justice.

Lastly, I am very curious about the next part of the saga, Mockingjay, simply because it should have no obligation to return to the Hunger Games and their milieu.

Instead -- like the book -- it should be able to focus on uprising, rebellion, and the idea that no matter what regime is in power things have a way of staying exactly the same. 

That’s the kind of narrative innovation this sequel needed, a leap away from the cruel dystopian game -- been there, done that -- and a step closer to a more serious consideration of the way that those in power are corrupted by it. 

Because it fails to really innovate in any significant way -- even when Plutarch gives us the blueprint to do precisely that -- Catching Fire is barely Treading Water.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:30 AM

    The other problem I have with the Plutach's plan is that in the original, it's certainly the case that winning the Games sets you up for life. Win, and you're out of the hunger cycle (and the implication is that you can't be a tribute again).

    The problems with the plot (and to a lesser extent, in the predecessor, and other movies of this type) is that part of the control that the government attempts to exert on the populace has to do with consistency. The rules are the rules, no exceptions. Winners thrive, others die. Whenever the government changes rules in mid-stream, they risk losing control, as it becomes obvious that there are no rules. The corollaries to that are that there's no rules for the ruled, and that the rulers will do anything to keep power (except, perhaps, make the correct decisions).

    The Running Man dealt with this. Last season's winners get to pose on a beach, then are killed. But no one knows they're dead.

    Rollerball dealt with this. Transportation kept changing the rules, and loses by doing so.

    Having the guys who are savvy enough to rule the world with an iron hand be dumb enough to think that they have to somehow publicly deal with a single person is nothing more than an 'idiot plot'. You know what that is -- a plot that can't happen unless someone does something stupid.