Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

2013. 146 min. PG-13.
IMDB says... Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

The 73rd Virgin says... I haven’t read the books and I saw the first of the franchise on DVD, but I was reasonably impressed. In the endless chain of futuristic dystopian fantasies stretching all the way back to 1927’s Metropolis, this movie falls in the upper 25th percentile. I don’t know what Suzanne Collins had in mind politically, but her vision of a fabulously wealthy and power-centric Capitol surrounded by impoverished subject districts seems more realistic with every lobbyist that moves to  DC, and with every small town SWAT team newly decked out in army surplus body armor and M-4s.

I stayed interested and entertained, but those who are comparing this to The Empire Strikes Back need to go re-watch that movie. Still, this was great fun with lots of enjoyable acting, action, flawless effects and convincing evocation of overwhelming glitz and glamour in the Capitol.

To recap: Katniss and her boyfriend #2, Peeta, were the first contestants (or “tributes”) in 74 years to survive The Hunger Games as a team. A clever plot device forced them to declare their rather ambivalent love for each other and win over the public. Their newfound status as the empire’s favorite sweethearts has afforded them some celebrity-based political clout, which immediately puts them in the sights of President Snow. The early focus on Katniss’s conflicted feelings about her status as a celebrity and victor are all necessary, but they take quite a while, as does her sorting out her childhood sweetheart from her public-pleasing official boyfriend.

As this begins – and admirably, the movie just begins; no credits, no backstory – the decision is made to bring surviving victors out of luxurious retirement and force them to compete again in the 75th Hunger Games. Killing all but one of the victors will presumably nip any nascent cults of personality in the bud.

But enough about what you already know. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is of course very good. However glamorous her off-screen image, those apple cheeks and little nose will always make her convincing as down-to-earth. Her two boyfriends and their interchangeable hairstyles seem pallid although Peeta is always there for her in the trenches. There are lots of old actors who could play President Snow. Bearded Donald Sutherland seems rather too blatantly malevolent and maybe unpolished when the character would be more effective with more charm. Ralph Fiennes would’ve been a good choice.

Stanley Tucci is essential as the toastmaster general of celebrity death culture, Caesar Flickerman, all over-bleached teeth and swirling hair, but Lenny Kravitz as fashion designer Cinna appears to be sleepwalking. Jenna Malone and Jeffrey Wright are very effective as smart victors returned to the game.

Finally, one does not introduce Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new game designer Plutarch Heavensbee without a good reason. As soon as you bring an actor this major into the mix, you know that he will be a significant part from this point forward, which preemptively robs the story of some surprise. Also, either intentionally by production design or because Hoffman didn’t feel like wearing a lot of makeup, his character lacks celebrity zing in a role that seems to call for it. You won’t find a bigger fan, but Hoffman may have phoned this one in.

At 146 minutes, even with very impressive action sequences and special-effects, the ending feels rushed, with boyfriend number one displaying a slight scratch on his face beneath his still perfect hair to exemplify the destruction of an entire district. It doesn’t seem to carry the weight of tragedy. It’s as if Princess Leia witnessed the destruction of the planet Alderaan and just got kind of mad. The fact that the last book of this trilogy will be covered in two movies does not bode well for efficient storytelling.  But for now, great fun.
The episode ends with a close-up on Katniss’s suddenly determined and empowered eyes. As such, it ends right about where 1975’s Rollerball ended and, upon reflection; I realized that so far this franchise has covered almost exactly the same ground. At much greater length. I’m sure I’m not the first to notice.

Whereas Rollerball envisioned a future run by regional corporations with a fatality-strewn version of roller derby as a means of keeping the population be-numbed, distracted, and focused almost entirely on “the team”, The Hunger Games offers the slaughter of individuals and the impermanence and distrust of alliances as an ongoing message of submission. Both explore the false and corrosive pre-packaged celebrity culture very effectively.

....and the trailers.


  1. "It’s as if Princess Leia witnessed the destruction of the planet Alderaan and just got kind of mad." Brilliant. A wonderful review of a movie I plan never to see. Your verbiage will happily sustain me.

  2. Thanks. I kinda split the baby. Four stars and then carping about everything wrong with it.

  3. Good review. While it wasn't as good as the first one, there's still plenty of tension this movie leaves hanging and I can't wait to see what happens next.

  4. Thanks. Yeah I'm looking forward to it. The effort put into the production design alone is something to marvel at.