Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I finally ran Charles the second episode of the four-film cycle being made from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, The Hunger Games. As probably everyone this side of Timbuktu probably knows by now, The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic U.S. in which most of the country has been ruined by war but a redoubt called “Panem” has established itself in what used to be the northeast. Panem — the name comes from the old slogan of the Roman empire, Panem et circenses, which means “bread and circuses” and refers to what the Roman ruling class thought they needed to give the masses to keep them, if not exactly happy, at least content with their lives and uninclined to rebel. Like most modern-day dystopias — including George Orwell’s 1984, which seems more than any other book to have set the basic template for novels set in a highly stratified future in which a tiny ruling class has everything and everyone else is barely surviving — there isn’t much panem to go around in Panem but there are quite a few circenses, particularly the annual Hunger Games, in which two Tributes (Panem’s ruling elite gets not only its basic strategy but considerable direct inspiration from the Roman empire — indeed, writer Collins named virtually all the members of Panem’s 1 percent after real-life ancient Romans), one male and one female, from each of Panem’s 12 proletarian districts, are selected at random (though volunteers are accepted) to participate in a fight to the death inside a high-tech arena. The Tributes are under threat not only from each other but also from whatever lethal conditions, ranging from hostile weather to genetically modified monsters, the Gamemaker, the designer of the whole shebang, can throw at them. In the first Hunger Games novel, our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from the coal-mining District 12, ekes out a precarious experience as a hunter, armed with a bow and arrow, shooting black-market game and thereby helping out her widowed mother (her dad died in a coal-mining accident and mom is a traditional healer offering what passes for medical care in the District). She ends up in the Hunger Games when she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Prim (short for Primrose) (Willow Shields), whose name is drawn in the Reaping (the drawing for contestants in each district), and her co-Tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The Hunger Games are set up so that only one of the 24 contestants actually survives, but in the first episode Katniss and Peeta manage to be declared co-winners after they grab a bunch of poisonous berries and Peeta announces that they’re so desperately and totally in love with each other that either they both get declared winners or they will eat the berries, both will die, and the Capitol (used to refer both to the central city of Panem and the elites who live there) will be denied their annual victor with whom to intimidate the people into continued submission.

Their against-the-rules victory has made both of them, especially Katniss, potential inspiration for rebellions from the Districts — exactly the sort of thing the Hunger Games were set up to discourage — and so as Catching Fire begins, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) — presumably the only Capitol resident who doesn’t have a Roman name — and the new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom it’s odd seeing in this role now that he’s dead — when Hoffman died the biggest shock for me was reading the list of credits in his obituary and realizing how many of my favorite movies of the last 10 years had had him in them), plots a way to nip any rebellious feelings in the bud. It happens to be the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, which gives the Capitol the right to make drastic rules changes (not that that stops them any other time — like every other authoritarian ruling class in history, the overlords of Panem recognize no restrictions whatsoever on their power and will do whatever it takes to stop any dissent from becoming dangerous), and the drastic rules change Plutarch hits on is to make up the cast of the current Hunger Games from the surviving winners of previous years. This means that Katniss and Peeta will be hurled into the arena again (though the script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt doesn’t do quite as good a job of dramatizing how that hooks Katniss’s PTSD as Suzanne Collins did in the novel) and will once again have to fight for their lives, this time against older but considerably more battle-ready opponents than they had last time. The idea is either Katniss and Peeta will be killed and the District residents who idolize them will get disillusioned, or Katniss will knock off the other District’s Tributes and they’ll hate her for killing off their heroes. There’s a quite stunning surprise ending that sets up the next episode of the story — though, following the contemptible practice started by the producers of the Harry Potter films and continued by the makers of the Twilight movies (as well as The Hobbit, which after the success of the Lord of the Rings triptych got stretched out from one film to three, count ’em, three), the last book in the series, Mockingjay, is going to be stretched out into two films.

Anyone coming to Catching Fire from having read all three books is going to get a quite different impression of it from someone coming to the film only from having seen the first Hunger Games movie, but as it stands it’s a rich, well-staged movie that mostly does justice to the material even though the screenwriters (at least partly due to the limitations of the film medium) have a harder time pulling off the marvelous double act Suzanne Collins did in the books, creating something that worked as a novel of ideas and an action thriller simultaneously. Much of Catching Fire — particularly the scenes of the actual Hunger Games themselves — looks like a Republic serial with a bigger budget (and with the contestants encased by force fields and natural barriers so they can’t just jump their way out of danger the way their predecessors at Republic could), and the ending is open-ended but, unlike the even more daringly open-ended (but also genuinely moving) ending of the second Twilight film, New Moon, exists not to bring this story to a satisfying conclusion but to set up the next episode. New director Francis Lawrence stages the film effectively (especially the action) and the acting is generally credible, though the young men — particularly the two in Katniss’s life, Peeta and her hunter boyfriend from back home, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, brother of Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) — look too much alike (the only reliable way to tell them apart is Gale’s hair is darker and slightly longer), and frankly I thought Sam Claflik, as the vainglorious District One Tribute Finnick Odair, was hotter than either Josh Hutcherson or Liam Hemsworth. Catching Fire is the sort of movie that’s difficult to assess except as part of its cycle, but as part of its cycle it mostly does justice to the material and tells an exciting story, even though it would be incomprehensible if you hadn’t either read the first Hunger Games novel or seen the first film.