Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cinema Fancy - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Any time entertainment tries to make a statement of any kind, there will always be criticism.  While the lines between art, entertainment, and commentary have always blurred somewhat, there are some who believe that works of fiction (whatever the medium) that are developed strictly as a medium of entertainment have little, if any, artistic merit or value.  I would argue to the contrary: any work that creates an emotional response within the audience, however slight, can be considered art in some form, even if the response is negative.  When a mass medium entertainment form transcends its trappings and is able to speak to people at a level beyond just merely evoking a response and consuming their time, it becomes difficult to argue against the merits of it as art.  Such is the case with The Hunger Games, and it's sequel, the aptly named Catching Fire.

I failed to mention so in my review of the first film, but when I saw the movie with my wife, teenager, and a coworker/friend, it immediately sparked conversation after the movie.  Not the usual post film questions of "What did you think?" and the like, but we immediately began a discourse on the weighty themes of the film, the implications of some of the plot points, and talking about how the events unfolded and what it all meant.  I suspect that's just what Suzanne Collins wanted, and that translated well in the first film.  This second installment of the trilogy revolves around a quickly planned and executed 75th Hunger Games; the 'Quarter Quell', a special edition of the games that takes place every 25 years.  This particular event seeks to bring back past winners of the Games and pit them against one another in a spectacular event.  President Snow, the reigning leader over the republic of Panem, hopes to use this event to eliminate Katniss, since her presence has sparked hope in the people of the 12 districts, something that the Capitol needs to keep at a minimum to prevent all the subjugated people from revolting.


Taking place a few months, or presumably close to a year after the events of the first book/film, Catching Fire immediately evokes a sense of familiarity for anyone who read the first book or saw the first film, and could be slightly confusing for anyone who hasn't.  Having said that, it's not entirely necessary to do so to get swept up in the film's cinematics, drama, effects, or pacing.  It seems as though there's a balance between wanting the focus of the proceedings to be on the Quarter Quell, and to the events brewing under the surface, namely, the growing unrest and dissatisfaction of the people of the 12 districts of Panem who have finally been given a symbol of hope in Katniss.  Katniss is, of course, caught in between the two worlds she is now a part of, one where she remains a poor young girl with a duty and responsibility to her family, and the lavish world of the Capitol, a land of plenty that she can now experience while touring to visit the districts and promote the Games as a victor.  Katniss does not see herself as a symbol of hope, and only wants to protect her sister and mother, as well as have a chance to live out her life without fear.

With the death of previous Games Maker Seneca Crane, the Quarter Quell is helmed by returning Games Maker Plutarch Heavensbee (played by the over-cast Philip Seymour Hoffman), who quickly plays both sides of the games by appealing to Katniss during a special reception for President Snow (again, excellently played by Donald Sutherland), as well as assuring President Snow during every step leading up to and during the games, that Katniss would be "destroyed" during the course of the 75th games.  Katniss tries to sacrifice herself once again in the games, this time for previous co-winner Peeta Mellark, with whom she has a complicated relationship.  Former District 12 winner Haymitch Abernathy (portrayed well by Woody Harrelson) is chosen alongside Katniss to participate in the Quarter Quell, but Peeta volunteers to take his place, complicating Katniss' efforts to keep Peeta safe.  All the while, Katniss is torn between her feelings for Peeta (while pushing him away), and District 12 boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (while pining for him).  Effie Trinket, the chaperon and constant companion to Katniss and Peeta during their "tour" after the 74th games, shows some emotional connection to the 2 victors during the tour and the time leading up to the 75th games, possibly demonstrating that she's not completely a heartless nincompoop after all.

There are some interesting parallels between the two films that bear mentioning.  It's interesting that in the "demonstrate your skills" portion of the Games preparation, she is totally confident in herself here, and rather than again displaying her bow & arrow skills as she did the first time, she instead uses the time to stage a political demonstration, completely unaware of the machinery at work behind the scenes.  This compared with the shy, awkward girl who missed the target with her bow & arrow the 1st time, before getting a bit lucky with the arrow shot the 2nd time.  The other thing that is quite interesting is Cinna's dress work for Katniss.  In the 1st film, the initial "girl on fire" stunt gave Katniss an identity, and was played upon for the events leading up to the Games.  This time around, however, as a victor and not a tribute, the "girl on fire" persona is taken to the extreme with the transformation of the wedding dress to that of a Mockingjay inspired outfit.  Combine that with Jenna Malone's spirited, expletive-filled rant on stage as Johanna Mason, and the general unity of the tributes during Caesar's interview show when everyone on stage holds hands and lifts them up to the sky.

Looking at it from a post-watch perspective, it's not hard to see the "plot twist" of Heavensbee being some kind of revolution leader, but I honestly wasn't expecting Haymitch to be in on the revolution at that high level, which I thought was kind of cool.  I liked the fact that Katniss wasn't in on the coup from the very beginning, and that the rest of the victors knew that they would be participating in, and possibly dying for, a revolution that may never get off the ground.  But, as the saying goes, "If you're going to die, die for what you believe in."  It's a solid motivator for them, as obviously their deaths are totally meaningless if they're just fodder for the Games' entertainment value.  I'll be interested to see the 3rd act and how it plays out, especially since it will be split into 2 films, as has become customary for Youth/YA novel-to-movie adaptations of late.  Hopefully it will mean further character development for Gale and Peeta, who are admittedly a bit thin as characters thus far.

Ultimately, if you enjoyed the first film like I did, looked past the obvious similarities to previous "death lottery" films, books, and stories, and took it for what it was, you'll enjoy this probably just as much, if not a bit more.  This isn't a film that will go down in history as one of the most socially conscious or poignant of all time, but in terms of its social impact, it still looks to be quite the phenomenon.  When I first saw it in the theater, I felt like it would be the current generation's "The Empire Strikes Back".  My perspective on that has cooled slightly, as I don't know that it will have that level of impact, but in terms of a movie that crosses over from being a niche sci-fi/fantasy drama into something much more universal in its storytelling and overall cultural impact, Hunger Games: Catching Fire has great potential to scale a similar height, even if it doesn't reach that zenith that the Star Wars franchise did.  Since they tell similar stories of oppression and rebellion against an unacceptable status quo, I believe The Hunger Games as a franchise could become the de facto "rise against authority" story for this generation.  Even if you didn't care for the first film, I still recommend this chapter, because I think it's worth the expanded story and Jennifer Lawrence's performance this time around.

No comments: