The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review: reluctant heroine
A devastating indictment of pop culture as propaganda — about its power and the limits of its powers — and an upending of the typical teen-girl romance movie.
I’m “biast” (pro):
loved the first film
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the source material (and I love it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Luke Skywalker never suffered from PTSD.
Well, we can presume he did. We can easily imagine that he woke up from nightmares drenched in sweat. We just never saw it onscreen. Depicting that sort of thing used to be the domain of angsty fan fiction. Nowadays, Tony Stark, in 3D IMAX, can’t sleep after New York. And we get our reintroduction to Katniss Everdeen, cowinner of the 74th Hunger Games, via a tremendously horrific flashback she experiences in what was once her safe place, her secret hunting grounds in the woodsy fringes of District 12.
Her life as she knew it is over. And Catching Fire is her “victory tour” through her new life as a prop in an endless propaganda parade propping up the spoiled, despotic Capitol that bleeds its impoverished Districts dry of all resources, demanding even the lives of their children in the annual bloodsport battle-to-the-death Hunger Games.
You know, for kids.
Like the first film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is startling in the casual brutality of its future world. Katniss (the glorious Jennifer Lawrence: House at the End of the Street, Silver Linings Playbook) has not been anything like a classic hero — and I don’t mean because of her gender. She is not a rebel. She is not an idealist. She’s not Luke Skywalker. She has never dreamed of overthrowing the Capitol, and she isn’t starting now. She is pure pragmatism in a tough world with few options at her disposal, and she is doing what she must to save her own skin and protect those she loves. She is blatant about this: “I did what I had to do to survive,” she says of the Games.
This is not a thing that heroes say. Sometimes it’s clear that’s what they’re about, just regular guys — almost always guys — thrown into a bad situation they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. But I can’t recall one of them ever actively pushing away the role thrust upon them… nor a story itself seeming to work toward the apparent diminution of its protagonist. I might even find myself fighting suspicions that this was a function of the, er, non-Hollywood-traditional gender of said protagonist, except that Katniss is probably the most plausible hero — yes, she’s definitely still a hero — that could come out of this oppressive world. A hero here could only arise accidentally.
Katniss is a marvelous cutdown of the preposterousness that too often passes for heroism in Hollywood, and a marvelous jab at the limited autonomy Hollywood most often grants women characters.
See, Fire takes place over the year after Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson: Epic, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) won the Games for District 12. The unprecedented dual winners are the result of Katniss’s canny ploy of pretending to be madly in love with Peeta, which endeared them to the Capitol audience watching on television, and then, when they were the last two standing, convincing Peeta that they should eat poison berries and both die together rather than one having to kill the other and be separated forever. So romantic! The Capitol audience ate it up, and the Gamesmakers figured they’d better let both live and win, lest they have a riot on their hands. Not a real riot, of course — the people of the Capitol are too well-fed and docile for that. But a PR disaster, at least.
Now, Katniss and Peeta are embarking on the traditional Victors’ Tour of the Districts, meant to spread the fear and remind everyone — again — that they are under the bootheel of the Capitol. Katniss must maintain that pretense of passion for Peeta, lest the people mistake Katniss’s gesture for rebellion. President Snow himself (a smarmy, menacing Donald Sutherland: The Eagle, The Mechanic) threatens Katniss in this regard: she must keep up the “love-crazed besotted schoolgirl routine.” Or Else.
But it’s too late. Whatever she intended, those watching in the Districts saw defiance: Katniss changed the rules, and that’s not supposed to be possible. They’ve caught a glimmer of hope. And now actual for-real riots are in the offing.
Katniss is awesome as a character, and remarkable as a hero, because her battle is with herself. She wants to protect her family — which includes not only her mother (Paula Malcomson: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Green Mile) and sister, Prim (Willow Shields), but also the boy she’s really in love with, Gale (Liam Hemsworth: The Expendables 2, The Last Song), even though she cannot admit that, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson: Now You See Me, Seven Psychopaths), the other surviving Games winner from District 12 who continues to mentor Kat and Peeta — but she cannot help but be the girl for whom disregarding the rules is as normal as breathing. (Her hunting is most certainly criminal, since long before she volunteered for the Games to replace Prim.) She cannot fake anything. She’s not doing things she’d rather not be doing: she’s doing what she can’t not do. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the book!) Part of the smartness of The Hunger Games is that the overarching story is about Katniss discovering herself and growing into herself in a way that she might not have chosen but that probably wasn’t something she would ever have had much choice over. She is strong in ways that she doesn’t realize yet… but is beginning to discover. This battle with herself was going to be fought even if she hadn’t ended up in the Games. (We saw this from the get-go, with her defiant illegal hunting.) She is not a hero who is being molded by extraordinary events — she is the one molding the extraordinary events to her. Even if that isn’t her intention.
So Katniss is special, and so is the story around her. Catching Fire is a devastating indictment of pop culture as propaganda — about its power and the limits of its powers — within its own context, as with the disgusting spectacle that is TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci: The Fifth Estate, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) and his supernaturally white teeth and unctuous manner. And outside its context, too: it upends the typical teen-girl romance movie by showing it off as the false playacting it is (“love-crazed besotted schoolgirl routine”!). It’s a strike at the willful ignorance of the well-off in the face of poverty and desperation all around them. How do the people of the Capitol cope with the fact of their lives of comfort and luxury next to the deaths of poor children? As the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Late Quartet, Moneyball), tells Katniss at an obscenely lavish party in the Capitol in her and Peeta’s honor, “If you abandon your moral judgment, it can be fun.”
I can’t exactly say that Catching Fire is “fun,” then, but with its excellent sociological sci-fi speculation and solid adventure, it’s enormously rewarding and provocative drama in the guise of popcorn entertainment.