Confession time: I have never read the books. I only re-watched half of the first movie in preparation for this review. I’ve never been to Boston in the fall. I am three children wearing a trench coat. The political stuff went way over our heads (Scott’s, mainly, because he’s the strongest so he had to be the legs).
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013):
The Plot: After winning the Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are living the good life. At least, that’s how they’re encouraged to sell it while they’re on their “victory tour.” In reality, she’s suffering from PTSD and wants nothing more than to hide in the woods with her family and kind-of boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Making matters worse, Katniss has become a symbol of hope to the impoverished people in the Districts, a fact that makes her very dangerous in the eyes of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Determined to get rid of her once and for all, he designs a special Quarter Quell with new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman): a game that will pit 24 of the former victors against each other. They will also have to fight monkeys, which I guess is an improvement over futuredogs?
You guys, this movie is really good. Catching Fire is a big, angry sci-fi story with grounded characters and a world that feels fully-realized. It’s engaging, intelligent, and a substantial improvement over the first one, which was still solid.
I’ve got a lot of stuff to talk about, so I’m gonna do that thing I do where I break the review up into different sections. Are we all cool with that? No. Well, disembodied voice, you can go straight to Hell.
The Part Where I Talk About Directing and Stuff
Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) and writers Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Store 3) manage to convey a sense of scope here that I found lacking in The Hunger Games.
For the most part, Lawrence—henceforth known as “F-Law”—doesn’t get in the way. His style is workmanlike, and that’s perfectly suited to the material. He and cinematographer Jo Willems—who managed to elevate the ultimately disappointing 30 Days of Night—let the script and the actors do the work, stepping in occasionally to remind us that the Capitol is a symbol of dangerous excess, or that dresses look cooler when you set them on fire.
The Part Where I Talk About Political Subtext
Speaking of dresses, it’s interesting how Cinna’s (Lenny Kravitz, for some reason) designs play a different role in this film. The Hunger Games has Katniss learning to play the media the way it’s meant to be played: for popularity. Her flaming clothes represent her spirit; they’re a way to maintain individuality even as she’s being controlled by the government. Even more, they’re used to advertise that rebellious spirit to potential sponsors. She needs to sell her image to stay alive. Katniss and Peeta’s act of defiance at the end of the film isn’t meant to incite a revolution; it’s just a way to hold on to their individuality in the face of certain death.
In Catching Fire, the game has changed. There are no sponsors. It doesn’t matter if anybody outside of the battlefield likes Katniss, because she is meant to die. Cinna’s methods stay the same, but the symbol takes on a new meaning. “I am still a person” becomes, whether Katniss likes it or not, “we aren’t going to take this quietly anymore.” She is the symbol now.
Most of Katniss’ big “fuck you” moments in Catching Fire are meant to be personal. She’s mad at the President. He’s threatened her family. Katniss is perfectly willing to let the status quo remain unchanged if it means she can live in isolation with the people she loves. It takes a special kind of crazy to want to be the symbol of an incredibly destructive revolution. The people around her—Haymitch, Cinna, Peeta—are the ones who know how to manipulate the media. The ones who are ready to sacrifice everything to tear down a cruel totalitarian government.
The Part Where I Talk About the Characters
Unwilling symbol though she may be, Katniss is a strong character. And when I say “strong,” I’m not just referring to the fact that she’s good at Legolas-ing dudes. She’s flawed and human. I said earlier that she’d rather run away into the woods than participate in a surely bloody revolution. It seems selfish, but she’s more afraid of watching her loved ones die than of dying herself.
By her nature, Katniss is tough and reserved, but President Snow presents a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable enemy. She’s scared, and her anger comes from that fear. It isn’t righteous so much as reactive. But the other people in the Districts need her to be righteous.
The best drama in the film comes from watching Katniss struggle to maintain her courage in the face of overwhelming odds. The revolution is necessary, but she’s got people on both sides pressuring her to be something that she’s not.
Much has been made of the love triangle between Peeta, Gale, and Katniss, although I guess since both dudes like her it’s more of an “angle” than a triangle (props to my roommate for pointing that out). Manly, brooding Gale is growing into an angry revolutionary leader. Peeta is courageous in his own way, although he’s such a wiener. Seriously. He’s a multi-faceted character, but 3/4ths of those facets are WIENER.
Peeta is just shy of being a Friendzone guy. He pines and pines, content to wait around for Katniss to love him back. To be fair, at least he’s not a dick about it. He is a good person, something that Katniss recognizes. She spends most of the games trying to protect him for that very reason. She sees herself as deeply flawed, but thinks she can find redemption in sacrificing herself for this all-around decent guy.
Okay, I’ll stop beating up on Peeta and talk about the performances because, hey, those are kind of important.
Jennifer Lawrence—henceforth referred to, obviously, as “J-Law”—and Josh Hutcherson are both excellent. The range they display is vital in making the characters work, which in turn grounds the political stuff. The revolution matters to us because it matters to the characters. We see the way the government of Panem abuses people we’ve come to care about. It’s always nice to see the evil empire fall, but it’s better when we actually care about the people toppling it.
The supporting cast lives up to the standard set by J-Law and Hutcherson, further grounding the world and investing us in the story. Returning characters Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) get to do more this time around, which is awesome. Harrelson had some great scenes in the first film, but Banks seemed kind of wasted. I love that a character as over the top as Effie Trinket is given moments of depth.
Of the new characters, Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jenna Malone) stand out. They’re both integral to the story, but they make an impression because both seem like they’re going to be one-dimensional when they’re introduced, and both end up being fully fleshed-out. Malone is always great, and she brings a brilliant intensity to the role. Her character is kind of batshit on the surface, but Malone never fails to show us the cunning and humanity behind the anger. I’d never seen Claflin in anything before, and he succeeds in much the same way, hinting at depth beneath a splashy façade.
The Part Where I Write a Conclusion
Hot damn, this thing ended up being kind of long. I’d better wrap it up, it’s past your bedtime.
Catching Fire is well-paced and full of engaging characters. It’s also a financially successful female-driven blockbuster, and that is fantastic. But as much as it’s about a woman’s struggle to survive while the government and a bunch of other people are trying to kill her, it’s also a powerful social commentary. Catching Fire succeeds in that respect where The Hunger Games never really did. The first film was very much about survival, with some romance and not-fully-cooked satire thrown in.
This film is about using the media to shake people out of their complacency. To take something meant to distract us and use it to criticize the institution. The revolution should be televised. But as much as we’d like to see ourselves in Katniss, or Peeta, or the weary people in the Districts, a lot of us have more in common with the gaudy, blood-thirsty fans in the Capitol. We obsess over actors and athletes, or political scandals. I’d rather spend my life watching and writing about movies than devote a month to providing relief in the wake of a natural disaster. Sad, but true.
It’s kind of funny that a movie about subverting the media is just as much a distraction for us as the Hunger Games are meant to be for the districts. We can agree with everything the movie is telling us, but at the end of the day, most of us haven’t accomplished anything beyond proving to ourselves how self-aware we are. Hey, I do prefer watching sci-fi to watching the news or donating money to charities. Really, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves if what the film is saying applies to us. Of course it does. We should be asking: “Are we absolved of the sin of our ignorance simply because we acknowledge it as being willful?”
Heavy, dude. It’s a heavy movie. Oh, and one more thing:
Stanley Tucci is a Goddamn Treasure
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