…And Katniss For All
Does VH-1 still run Behind the Music any more? Because – and I say this not having read the Hunger Games books – I’m starting to suspect these movies are following an arc similar to that of so many rock bands, as seen conveniently three-act structured into that much-loved TV format. So in part one, the fresh face tops the charts and becomes number one on the hit parade. Now comes the realization that if she wants to stay viable, she has to keep touring forever, and duplicate her past success. No wonder many of her predecessors burned out and turned to booze…or insanity.
It’s a loose enough metaphor that you could also apply it to star Jennifer Lawrence’s real-life career – suddenly Oscar-nominated, she has to make the rounds charming all the right people, but is too goofily honest to say the politically correct thing every time, which wins over the mainstream audiences but may not appeal to the right people. In actuality, though, Lawrence won the Oscar anyway; in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, her Katniss Everdeen just wins the wrath of Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, whose last name as antitheses of fire is surely no coincidence.
Using a special anniversary clause that allows the rules to be changed up, Snow organizes a tournament of champions, with one male and female alumnus from each district re-drafted. With the aid of new games master Plutarch Heavensbee, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the only guy in the Capital who didn’t get the memo to dress like a brain-damaged clown, Snow envisions that Katniss will either die or lose audience sympathy when she’s forced to kill again. There are less important personal dilemmas too: still vying for her affections are pouty Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), whom she doesn’t love but must try to pretend to (funnily enough, isn’t this what we all imagined was the case with Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson?), and gallant Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Then there’s some new hot dude named Finnick (Sam Claflin), who’s designated important but it’s not yet fully clear why, and an uninhibited proto-goth named Johanna (Jena Malone) who strips naked in front of Peeta in an elevator (sorry guys, it’s PG-13 and you don’t really see anything…besides Woody Harrelson’s extremely amused reaction).
The first half of the movie has a slow buildup, one that you want to compliment in a movie like this, even while suspecting it was only done so that every moment in the book, no matter how small, could be sandwiched inside. In the second half, it’s game time, and the arena in this instance is like a mini-version of the island from Lost, only instead of having a long, drawn-out mystery nobody can ever figure out, it contains a fairly simple one that – literally, it turns out – a mentally handicapped person can solve.
As a non-reader of these tomes, what I found most appealing about Catching Fire was that it contains genuine surprises for anyone expecting a retread. It also nicely continues the first film’s themes of celebrity and media savvy being as vital and deadly as weapons, with the same amount of potential blowback – having attained fame with them, Katniss is shocked to discover that she needs to keep using them more than ever, as staying in place can be just as hard as getting there. All while she’s dealing with the battle trauma/PTSD of what she had to do to make it in the first place; and as someone who has seen PTSD up close and very personal, I’d say Lawrence nails it.
“What’cha gonna do, when science-mania runs wild on you?”
For levity, we get Jeffrey Wright as an older Games alumnus who uses his MacGyver skills and love of science – it’s like Neil deGrasse Tyson suddenly got thrown into the middle of Battle Royale (those who insist on begging the comparison should note this is a far superior sequel to Battle Royale II). Along with Malone’s frank and feral ax-woman, he makes a nice contrast to the sometimes too-earnest District 12 heroes. Hoffman has the toughest job of all, with a character who initially makes no sense whatsoever – he needs the game to appear fair, yet he interferes and rigs it conspicuously – but as his motives clarify, so does his performance.
While I get more joy watching my wife geek out on these movies than I do viewing them alone, there’s not a lot of overall fault to find here unless you want to get into nerd-level nitpickery that’s probably all better explained in the books anyway. I could have done with a bit less messianic posing toward the very end – Katniss is Woman of Steel? – but the final scenes that set up the next two cinematic installments definitely have me curious as to what’s next.
ADDENDUM: I should have mentioned this earlier, but in response to so many queries – yes, all that shaky-cam you complained about in the first movie is gone. They listened.