Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire brings up the question of how one writes critically about a film that had to be made. When I say “had to be made” I mean not made out of creativity or passion but rather as the fulfillment of obligations, both to the fans of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels and to those who benefited from the success of the first Hunger Games film. The arrival of Catching Fire then allows balance sheets to be completed and the arcs of various careers to proceed in their course. It’s an awfully cynical attitude to go into a review with, but perhaps it’s best to just acknowledge and move on. Catching Fire finds Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) just as she embarks on her Hunger Games victory tour alongside co-champion Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss and Peeta both have new homes in the “Victors Village” of District 12, but life in the District hasn’t improved for the other residents. (The victor’s house occupied by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch looks like the stuff of Don Draper’s nightmares.) The film’s central concern is the degree to which Katniss, whose subversion of the Hunger Games during her win has placed her in opposition to the government, can play along with President Snow (Donald Sutherland in fine, oily form) and convince the public that her behavior during the Games was only motivated by love for Peeta. The victory tour goes badly wrong and leads to more violence. At Snow’s direction Katniss and Peeta are thrust into the “Quarter Quell”, an every 25th year special version of the Hunger Games, and forced to fight for their lives against fellow former winners.

Francis Lawrence takes over the director’s chair from Gary Ross but keeps up the overarching vision of a world where it always looks like winter. Catching Fire works well enough as an action movie; the Quarter Quell itself is a tense chase through a jungle arena manufactured by game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) . The group of former winners is filled out by a strong cast that includes Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, a touching Lynn Cohen, and Jena Malone as a politically savvy foil for Katniss. What Catching Fire isn’t is an interesting love story. Neither Peeta nor Gale (Liam Hemsworth) can offer Katniss much more than a kind of all-purpose adoration, and I’m not even sure that Collins is really interested in which one wins her heart. Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t break any new ground as Katniss but of course she doesn’t have to. Lawrence plays Katniss as a mirror of the movie’s emotions; she’s believably tough when it’s called for and displays an impressive amount of fright when the terrors of the Games begin to mount. What Katniss isn’t though is a politically engaged person, and the film repeats what I thought was a problem with the novel. Katniss is repeatedly confronted with signs of a changing political climate; there’s the quiet subversion in the behavior of Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) on her support staff and the brutal repression on display when Gale is flogged by a District 12 functionary. There are also multiple scenes where Katniss watches footage of riots on television, but it’s never made clear that she understands the scope of the situation or her own value as a symbol of hope. The film and the novel present Katniss’s political awakening as a “plot twist” but by the time it happens we’re already way ahead of her. There are one novel (that I haven't read) and two films left in the Hunger Games, and while I look forward to seeing how the series broadens the point of view of its heroine I just wish that the process had begun a little sooner.

No comments: