There are times—and they come at me more frequently these days—when I feel out of step with everything and everyone. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into full sobbing mental breakdown right here in the first paragraph—I’ll save that for later.
But when I see the movie-going public go ga-ga for a dull, corporate puppet show like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I shake my head and wander out of the theater (two and a half hours later, thanks) and into the wild.
You know what’s so great about Catching Fire? It’s tolerably watchable. That’s it. It’s not a good film. It’s not good entertainment.
And contrary to what has now, in less than a month, become Conventional Wisdom, parroted by fans and critics alike, it’s certainly not better than last year’s relatively subtle first Hunger Games movie. Catching Fire is a piece of smoothly assembled and blisteringly marketed product that doesn’t absolutely suck.
(I find myself often saying this about big franchise action movies like Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Thor, and yes even the Twilight films: The studios have their system down pat. Unless the Powers That Be have a momentary lapse of insanity or inebriation and hire some sort of weirdo actual creative artist to make these films, the cinematic outcome—the assembly line McDonalds product—is going to turn out… eh, okay. Tolerable. Watchable. Mostly edible.)
The first Hunger Games movie was helmed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) and, as I wrote last year, I found it surprisingly nuanced and naturalistic. With a little second-unit help from Steven Soderbergh, that first film in the franchise felt like it was breathing, like it cared about its characters. It was a little washed out, a little hand held, and very often it was that most blessed and rare of cinematic things these days: Quiet.
Well, by god, that will be quite enough of that. Despite the debut film’s box-office success, Ross was soon shown to the curb of the arena, replaced for the rest of the Hunger Games franchise by Francis Lawrence, the utterly competent, completely bland Austrian director behind such “literary” adaptations as I Am Legend and Water for Elephants.
Both those movies are clean, safe, dull bits of hackery that manage to make beautiful people such as Will Smith and Robert Pattinson look good while enduring unimaginably horrific situations like a vampire-zombie apocalypse or having to touch Reese Witherspoon.
That makes Lawrence a perfect fit for what The Hunger Games franchise needed to become: A Series of Unfortunate (But Exciting!) Events Happening to Really Good-Looking People. After all, what are the film versions of Suzanne Collins’ YA novels (often praised as better written than the Twilight series—which is like saying leprosy is better than Ebola because it takes longer for all your parts to fall off) but studies in aggressively un-self-aware irony?
(Albeit, off-camera—The Hunger Games movies rarely show violent on-screen deaths because, well there’s that lucrative PG-13 rating to be preserved, and also death isn’t supposed to be a visceral, shattering event in these films, it’s just a plot device to juice up the real story: Teenagers in love.)
Since the plot of Catching Fire is for all practical purposes exactly the same as The Hunger Games, when you ask people why they think sequel is superior to the first film a lot of them will tell you, “the action scenes are better.” There you have it.
We load up the kids in the car, hump it out to the Cineplex, plop down our cash, and watch a bunch of attractive young actors prance around in fancy flaming clothes and then slip into future-sexy wetsuits to try and kill each other. And then, when the popcorn bucket is down to the kernels and the Icee sugar-buzz has worn off, we get back in the car and wring our hands all the way home about the “fictional” tragedy of young people being forced to kill each other for the entertainment of lazy, oblivious elites, and how terrible it is that all that sanctioned slaughter keeps getting in the way of Katniss finding True Love with the Right Guy.
By the way, can someone explain to me, without using the phrase “because they’re totes in love,” exactly why Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are locked into this pointless, dysfunctional, delusional, down-right psychotic martyr-fest in which all either seems to want from the relationship is to sacrifice their life to save the other for no good reason?
What I love most about the character of Peeta in the books and now the films is what an obviously horrible mistake he was. Collins clearly felt she had to have a love triangle in her little dystopia dosey doe, but you can almost hear her, by the end of the first book, thinking, “Oh ffs, what have I done? This dead-weight Peeta character is more useless than a slab of processed and flash-frozen McRib meat. I wonder if I can have him be eaten by a T-rex at the start of the next book?”
Not that Katniss is much better. Sure we all love Jennifer Lawrence, she of the now-a-little-too-calculated “honesty” on the press tours—there’s no doubt she’s a genuine acting talent.
But Katniss is little more than a dead-eyed lump of whining myopia. She wants to protect her sister and shoot wildlife, not necessarily in that order. She has no larger vision of society, no desire to help overthrow the Capitol, and certainly no real romantic interest in either Peeta or Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
She’s praised as being a more active, independent heroine than say Bella Swan in Twilight, but Katniss has be literally be dragged kicking and screaming into doing anything proactive. (And those who have read all three of Collins novels know that when all is said and done, her emotional fate is… well, we’ll just have to see how the film version gussies it up for feel-good consumption.)
Not that all that makes Katniss a bad literary heroine—she’s anti-social and dark and more than a little damaged, even dead inside. That’s all good stuff for a complex character, but of course it’s not the right stuff for a teen movie franchise. As a result, with both Katniss and the larger rebellion she’s reluctantly sucked into, The Hunger Games movies end up struggling with deeper, more complicated themes than they can neatly package for a mainstream franchise audience.
The movies don’t just do a disservice to the notions of a flawed and unreliable protagonist and desperate social inequality and political oppression, but in glossing over them and re-branding them for mass consumption, corrupt those elements, distorting them into part of the very problems they were supposed to be exposing.
The next two Mockingjay films (yes, of course they’re splitting the last book in half—money, money, money…) will give us ample opportunity to discuss The Hunger Games’ take on actual revolution later, so for now let’s look at a much smaller, more trivial, and therefore more insidious example.
Katniss is a poacher from the impoverished coal-mining District 12 (not far from West By God Virginia). She and her family wear hand-crafted clothes, use the whole buffalo, struggle and scrape to survive. But of course thanks to the Hunger Games, Katniss ends up in the Capitol with its filthy rich Fellini-esque cast of neon-pastel-damaged fashion victims, represented front and flighty center by Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket, a chittery Versailles explosion of powdered-wig style over substance.
For Catching Fire, Lionsgate Studio signed promotional deals with Covergirl and the luxury designer Net-a-Porter to produce a line of Capitol- and Hunger Games-inspired make up and clothing. Yes, stop for a moment and soak in the crass obliviousness.
That right there, as we say in football, is your dagger. Game over. Jig up. Once the studio signed those deals, it officially punted away any pretense of these films being about what they pretend to be about. They are not about how a desperate, clawing fight to overthrow an inhumane, decadent dictatorship destroys lives and souls; they are about selling to teenagers (and grownup teenagers) the dream of being part of an inhumane, decadent dictatorship; joining the ultimate “in crowd.”
Take for example what many are calling Catching Fire’s “best moment”: When Katniss and her head stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) sabotage the Games’ tyrannical propaganda by having her appear on a promotional TV show in a white faux wedding dress that twirls and burns into a coal-black mockingjay piece, complete with spread wings of freedom. (Katniss’ mockingjay pin has become the rallying symbol of the growing uprising.)
But in the film Catching Fire, the moment becomes not about Katniss on stage as The Dark Angel of Death, but a visual treat: How Pretty Katniss/Lawrence Looks in an Gorgeous Dress. The revolution gets lost on the red carpet, swallowed up and defeated by the shallow impulses it’s supposed to be exploiting.
So does the entire film and the franchise. I say let it all burn.