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Film Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013; Directed by Francis Lawrence)

The massively successful second installment of the four-film franchise of Suzanne Collins’ young-adult dystopian novel series opens with an image of its heroine in still, watchful contemplation. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) crouches on the edge of a body of water, arrow cocked in her ever-present bow. The expression on her face is at once reflective and haunted, vigilant and suspicious. Lawrence’s Katniss is at once inscrutable and transparent (“I’m an open book,” she later tells a fellow Games Victor), a cipher and an independent free spirit. And as Catching Fire begins, she’s inadvertently become a symbol of resistance and potential revolution against the oppressive authoritarian rule of Panem’s elegant, Machiavellian head of state, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

2012’s The Hunger Games climaxed with Katniss’ clever gambit to jointly win the titular Games, an annual televised competition that pits children from Panem’s twelve Districts against each other in deadly arena combat, with her fellow District 12 Tribute, sensitive baker’s boy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss and Peeta threatened to kill themselves by consuming poisonous berries, leaving Panem’s marquee cultural event without a champion, and the creative-class fascist subaltern Gamemaker blinked first, declaring them both Victors. Now ensconced in Edwardian row mansions in District 12’s mostly deserted Victors’ Village, Katniss whiles away her hours hunting in the woods with her longtime best friend and potential beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth), while the lovesick Peeta whiles away his hours longing after Katniss.

Unceremoniously plucked from this pensioned boredom, Katniss and Peeta are taken on a Victor’s tour of Panem’s districts by their minders, District 12’s only previous Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and the ludicrously-attired social butterfly from the decadent Capitol, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). Intended as a propagandistic victory lap for the state’s massively popular mechanism of control buttressed by the added human-interest angle of Katniss and Peeta’s famous for-television-only romance, this tour instead becomes a focal point for discontent and displays of public protest linked to Katniss’ perceived rebellion against the Capitol’s locus of power in the previous Games. She nurturs no overt revolutionary ambitions, hewing instead to self-preservation and protection of her loved ones, but her disarming emotional honesty entwined with Peeta’s low-key yearning for justice proves to be a lightning-rod for increasing popular resistance.

It must not be a very resilient system of social control that can be so destabilized by small displays of kindness and love, to paraphrase something Katniss says to Snow in a pre-tour meeting between the distant adversaries. Snow puts up a good front of power, but also recognizes the threat posed by Katniss to his rule and conspires to neutralize it. On the suggestion of his new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, ably overcoming the single silliest fantasy name in a series chocked full of them), Snow saturates the state-controlled media with juxtaposed tableaux of vacuous celebrity news and open crackdowns on dissent, contrasting fashion-focused tidbits about Katniss’ impending enforced nuptials with Peeta with floggings, executions, and brutal raids on seditious elements in the Districts. Screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn impart Collins’ bald associations between the frippery of consumer capitalism’s celebutainment machine and the more sinister machine of totalitarian oppression with just that sort of stark directness, even if they leave certain last-act plot twists underdeveloped.

Like most of the state’s schemes of narrative-shaping, though, this clumsily heavy-handed approach is guilelessly defied by Katniss, who intervenes along with Peeta and Haymitch to stop Gale’s public flogging by Head Peacekeeper Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit), whom he attacked to save a defenseless old woman. This incident convinces Snow that the fame and influence of the Victors is too dangerous. To eliminate it (and hopefully Katniss, too), Snow and Heavensbee conceive of a special twist for the 75th Hunger Games: its Tributes will be drawn solely from previous winners of the competition, and the inevitable cull of popular favourites will climax with an engineered death for the Girl on Fire that will not only kill off the person but discredit the revolutionary symbol as well.

There are so many familiar appealing figures in this convention-replicating set-up to the Games that it almost seems a shame when the stadium bloodbath commences and the non-participating characters drop away. Sutherland is all silvery submerged menace; he employs plenty of uniformed thugs to maintain his power, but that doesn’t mean this suave sophisticate is one of them (Mustapha Mond of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is an obvious frame of reference). Hoffman and Harrelson are thesps of much greater skill than this material requires, and barely need to try to hit and even exceed their marks (watch this in concert with Harrelson’s much-praised, complex recent turn in HBO’s buzzy thiller series True Detective and you’ll see what I mean). Lenny Kravitz’s fashion guru mentor to Katniss is smooth as silk and effortlessly empathetic once again.

All photos from the studio of Panem’s answer to Annie Liebowitz, Olympia Shutterblink

But of course, the representatives of the Capitol’s flashy self-indulgence shine brightest with over-the-top comedic brilliance. Banks’ very funny Effie flits across the screen in a series of increasingly flamboyant costumes, including a dress and fascinator ensemble constructed entirely of monarch butterflies that clearly illustrates her inherent nature. But Banks cannily sneaks in a tone of emotional fondness for her Tribute charges and even mildly defiant solidarity with their resistance to the system that has furnished her with untold bangles. Even more delightful is the return of Stanley Tucci’s spectacular ivory-toothed media sycophant Caesar Flickerman, a spangled grotesque of supremely unctuous proportions, like an over-coiffed Weimar-era German cabaret club emcee whose services are retained by the Nazis.

This overwrought satire of image-conscious excess falls away when the Games begin and violent, action-packed self-seriousness takes over the film for its final hour. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to his starlet) places and moves his camera effectively, jettisoning Gary Ross’ shaky-cam depictions of the in-arena slaughter in the first film. The Games stadium this time is a thick jungle (many of Catching Fire‘s locations were filmed in Hawaii) surrounding the central supply-stash of the Cornucopia at the hub of a clock-like lake. Fiendish death-dealing dangers descend like biblical plagues on the hour: a poisonous fog, a drowning tsunami, a vicious pack of babboons, and most vitally a towering clump of trees struck by lightning at midnight. Katniss and Peeta soon find, to their surprise, that they have plentiful allies in this edition of the Games, including a muscular pretty-boy with a trident (Sam Claflin), a volatile ax-wielding riot grrrl (Jena Malone), and a pair of tactical geniuses (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer). Climactically, an elaborate plan involving superconductive wire and the lightning-rod tree will collapse the distinctions between the hyper-controlled Games and the revolutionary atmosphere in the nation outside its walls, effectively declaring the revolution officially launched before the credits roll.

In Catching Fire, Collins’ blithely unsubtle tapestry of genre pastiches continues to confound well-demarcated ideological readings. Tea Partiers viewed the series’ stark social picture of a decadent urban elite exploiting a slave-like rural proletariat as expressing distinct solidarity with conservative, salt-of-the-earth (read: white) Americans’ perceived culture-war struggle against their multicultural big-city liberal oppressors, just as progressives saw in it a reflection of Occupy Wall Street’s contrast of a privileged 1% with a struggling 99%. The Hunger Games‘ imagined social construction of Panem is probably more properly understood from a Marxist class struggle perspective, with a commodity-obsessed bourgeoisie draining the labour capital of a downtrodden proletariat without any meaningful rights (the influence of Marx’s stark social distinctions on the contours of modern American conservative thought is much underappreciated). Season this concoction with a sprinkling of Horkheimer and Adorno’s later contextualization of Marx for the 20th century mass-consumption “culture industry” and a dash of steely authoritarian iron-fist oppression and you’ve got Collins’ particular dystopian recipe.

What makes The Hunger Games so singular as a genre piece, however, is the shifting multiplicity of the Games’ implications about the nature of hegemonic power and the malleability of its iconic heroine’s embodiment of (but not necessarily conscious adoption of) the values of political rebellion. The Hunger Games are usually read in a facile manner as a sensationalist reality-TV-style distraction from the harsh conditions of the lives of most of Panem’s citizens, combined with a opportunity for the Capitol elite to assert status distinctions by sponsoring in-game favourites. Haymitch even states this interpretation directly to Katniss and Peeta after they spark a disturbance in the predominantly African-American District 11.

But there’s much more to the Games than this, as President Snow openly recognizes. In the first film, he impressed upon his then-Gamemaker that the chance of becoming a Tribute and possibly a Victor is an escape tunnel of hope for citizens of the poorer quarters of Panem. Even if well-trained inner-District Careers tend to dominate the competition, the possibility of victory and improvement of their material conditions are meant to deactivate the potential disobedience of the underclass through the aspirational hope of rising in the social order.

Where have you gone, Leni Riefenstahl, our Aryan Nation turns its lonely eyes to you…

Moving beyond stated textual explanations of their function, however, the Games strongly communicate two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory symbolic and ideological messages about the nature of hegemonic state power. Originally conceived of as a response to the destructive rebellion that the regime put down 75 years before, the Games answer the interrogatory about a repeat of the uprising with both a promise of security and a threat of pitiless crackdowns. By staging lethal minors-on-minors violence as entertaining spectacle, the state emphasizes its near-omnipotent ability to protect its citizenry from such horrors in the real world, a yearly celebration of the end of resistance to its edicts that also narrativizes how that resistance is kept at bay. By the same token, demonstrating the state’s facility and willingness to stage the slaughter of children by other children for the purpose of mass distraction constitutes an implicit threat of neutralizing force to potentially seditious elements. Discursively, the Games broadcast the message that the power of the state will keep you safe from social instability and will do so with brutal violence if necessary.

The stark and obvious fascism of Snow’s regime leaves it inherently vulnerable to Katniss’ simple, unarticulated individual agency. Katniss is the literalization of the lightly-delineated Marxist concept of spontaneous revolution; she is the symbolic mockingjay for the fomenting rebellion not because she purposely adopts its aims but because she embodies its ideal end result of liberated independence. Katniss doesn’t especially want anything beyond survival and protection of those close to her; she famously can’t decide between opposite-sex objects of affection Gale and Peeta, and doesn’t grant the matter of settling her romantic affairs the vital importance often expected of a female lead. She certainly doesn’t intend to reinforce the discriminatory norms of Panem’s social system, but her resistance is personal rather than mass-ideological, subtle, natural disobedience to authority figures as opposed to conscious participation in a planned coup d’état.

This, at least, is the impression that proceeds from Lawrence’s performance, based in the young star’s preference for listening, observation, and wonderfully, visibly thinking before (and during, and after) her actions. Collins’ novel is grounded in Katniss’ perspective, giving full access to her inner monologue on events in her world, and absent a suffocating voice-over narration, this effect cannot be replicated on a movie screen. Lawrence the director recognizes what he’s got in Lawrence the actress much more keenly than Ross did in the first film, and he lets his star’s exquisite reactions approximate the literal glimpse into her character’s thoughts provided on the page. This makes her defiance of authority more potent and indefatigable for being an essential feature of her personality. Witness the contrast of Malone’s prickly Johanna and her outspoken thumb-biting to the establishment to Katniss’ quieter but more effective resistance for proof of this. Johanna flips off and cusses out the President in her pre-Games interview and reiterates her derision for the state during the competition, yelling her disdain at the arena’s dome-sky as if denying an absent and unacknowledging God. But Katniss responds to the state’s abuses as they arise, skillfully exposing them for the disproportionately cruel overreactions that they are.

She also has a powerful, wordless riposte to that malevolent, oppressive power structure, firing an electrified arrow into the artificial heavens like a stoic Greek war sprite toppling the gods from their Olympian perch with a makeshift thunderbolt. Francis Lawrence cannot resist suffusing the aftermath of Katniss’ destruction of the game infrastructure with blatant Christ imagery, bathing the prone Jennifer Lawrence with a shaft of divine crepuscular light from the hole she has torn in the industrial skin of this simulacrum and arranging her in a crucifixion pose as she is lifted by the rescue ship. But Katniss is more quiet, non-violent messianic revolutionary than placard-hoisting, conspiratorial feminine Lenin (Lenine?), at least in the film of Catching Fire. But the final shot of this film, its ambiguous cliffhanger ending referencing The Empire Strikes Back, suggests a hardening of the rebellious resolve of Katniss Everdeen, no doubt to the detriment of the authoritarian regime that made itself her enemy long before she conceived of becoming its enemy.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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