‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ sets up battles but can’t deliver a coup de grâce

December 16, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 16, 2013

Some years ago, while I was working as a newspaper reporter on the K-12 education beat, I went to an English classroom to cover the first day of school. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, or the exact nature of her class, but I believe the instructor worked with poorly performing students.

At one point, either before the period began or during a particularly dull stretch as the teacher was laying down the ground rules for the coming year, I was standing in the back of the room. There was a bookcase beside me, and I idly picked up a paperback volume. The description on the back was at once intriguing and obscure; it seemed to involve a young woman with a bizarre name and a repressive futuristic society and an incipient rebellion…

The book seemed interesting, but it also appeared to be aimed at young adults, so I set it aside. Still, the title of the novel, and the names of the character or characters mentioned on the back cover, stuck with me.

This, of course, is how I became aware of The Hunger Games, the best-selling trilogy of Suzanne Collins novels about a dystopian future. (Well, is there any other kind of future?)

But not until the first Hunger Games movie (with that very title) came out last year was I actually exposed to anything beyond the broad outlines of the narrative.

If you’re not up to speed, the first entry in the trilogy goes as follows: Tough, smart young archer Katniss Everdeen is the female resident of impoverished District 12 who is destined to compete in the Hunger Games. This annual competition of the autocratic nation of Panem pits 24 young contestants — one male and one female from each of the dozen districts — against each other in a battle to the death. The last person standing is assured of lifelong fame and wealth.

But by the end of The Hunger Games — spoilers follow — in an unprecedented development, two champions are crowned. One is Everdeen; the other, Peeta Mellark, the baker’s boy who for years has secretly adored Katniss.

Mellark is fairly good-looking and pretty strong, but, like the female love interests in many a more traditional action-adventure tale, the character is mostly defined by his love for the protagonist.

I liked the first movie well enough, while recognizing its limitations. There’s something rather off-putting about an entertainment franchise that implicitly scolds its fictional audience for enjoying the sight of young people killing one another while simultaneously enticing its actual audience with the promise of young people killing one another. This is true even though the actual killing in the first Hunger Games movie is de-emphasized to the point of bowdlerizing the narrative.

I toyed with reading the trilogy, but the moment passed and I never acted on the impulse. So it wasn’t until last weekend that I got around to find out what happens in the series’ second installment by watching the Hunger Games: Catching Fire movie.

The new film begins some months after the conclusion of the first picture. As part of the run-up to the 75th games, Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are about to leave on a 12-day national victory tour. The film’s essential conflicts are set up quickly and efficiently: Everdeen’s conscience is haunted by her having killed — and benefited from the deaths of — other youngsters in the games. She is desperate to protect her mother and her younger sister, Primrose, as well as the countless innocent residents of District 12 whom the dictatorial President Snow (a reptilian Donald Sutherland) threatens to incinerate.

Snow’s interest in Everdeen is wholly limited to his desire to retain power. He believes the easiest way to do so is by having Everdeen and Mellark distract Panem’s increasingly restive populace with their storybook romance. Despite her fundamental unease with Mellark, whom she likes and respects but for whom she has no passion, the heroine agrees to double down on this deception in a desperate bid to protect her family. She also wants to shield her hunky childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth); thanks to electronic surveillance, Snow knows he carries a torch for Everdeen.

Unfortunately, Everdeen isn’t much of an actress, and things in Panem are going quite badly. She’s horrified when Snow’s “peacekeepers” summarily execute an audience member who performs some kind of dissident salute on the victory tour’s first day. Soon afterward, her and Mellark’s mentor, onetime Hunger Games victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, gleefully portraying a rich, dissolute hillbilly) inform the duo that what Everdeen expected to be a 12-day ordeal is really a journey that will last a lifetime. In Panem, the winners of the games are celebrities whose every move is scrutinized by the public.

The plot thickens when Snow and new games-master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) change the rules for the 75th edition of the contest. This year, the 24 “tributes” are to be drawn from the pool of existing winners. (Rather conveniently, male and female victors from each of the districts are still alive and kicking.)

Now Everdeen and Mellark are reunited with Abernathy and their liaisons with the wealthy, decadent Capital, which controls Panem: media advisor Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). But the situation has changed, on multiple levels. For one thing, the formerly vapid Trinket displays some soulfulness. For another, Abernathy advises the young competitors that they must make alliances with other contestants in order to have a chance at survival.

So the heroes and audience become acquainted with a brand new set of contestants. Prominent among them are the strong, handsome and devious Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin); Mags (Lynn Cohen), the old woman whom Odair pledges to protect; Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), a spoiled but pragmatic young woman who bitterly resents losing what she thought was to be a lifelong reprieve from danger and want; and Beetee and Wiress (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer, respectively), a brilliant but eccentric pair who compensate for a lack of brawn by relying on their wits to survive.

About halfway into the film, the new competition begins in earnest, and the characters start dying. Everdeen, Mellark, Odair and Mags form an alliance; after facing a few perils, the survivors begin to make sense of the tropical environment in which they are caged. As the games play out, it seems increasingly unlikely that there will be multiple survivors this time, and Everdeen is uncertain whom she can trust, or what she must do to survive.

The script goes a bit over the top at the beginning, with Everdeen being startled by Gale for no particularly good reason moments before she has some sort of flashback or hallucination. Also unfortunate are exchanges of dialogue such as this clunker: “Since the last games, something is different. I can see it,” Primrose Everdeen tells Katniss at one point. “What can you see?” the heroine asks, to which the younger girl replies, “Hope.”

Still, the production, spearheaded by director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, keeps things moving along briskly. And things generally become livelier after the picture returns to District 12, where Snow’s crackdown starts hitting Everdeen where she lives (rather literally).

Overall, the movie is pretty exciting, and it manages to make its fairly large and unwieldy cast of characters seem worth caring about.

Alas, this feature faces one inescapable issue: It’s the middle leg of a three-volume series of books and what is planned to be a four-part movie series. It’s apparent about two-thirds of the way in that there will be no significant narrative closure. I expect that the 2014 and 2015 films based on the Mockingjay book will depict Panem engaged in all-out civil war, with Snow, the brutal Commander Thread and the duplicitous Heavensbee (or is he?) stopping at nothing in their quest to maintain power.

So does Catching Fire stand on its own? Yes — sort of. Ultimately, though, I feel as though I won’t know if investing the time to watch it was truly worthwhile until I’ve seen the subsequent films. Much like Back to the Future (the final part of which I’ve never watched) and The MatrixThe Hunger Games is reminiscent of a contemporary dramatic television series. Individual episodes can explore different story lines, but when it comes to the second part, it’s impossible to judge any one as an artistic whole.

I expect I’ll view the third and fourth Hunger Games movies, and maybe I’ll even get around to reading the books. But right now, I feel unable to render a final verdict on the project.

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