The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
For me, one of the surprise blockbusters of 2012 was Jennifer Lawrence’s young adult literature franchise The Hunger Games, a phenomenally successful book to screen adaption which seems to have speared the post Twilight screen demographic firmly in the bull’s-eye. I found the first film adequate fodder which was unsurprisingly diluted from its original corrosive premise, novelist Suzanne Collins stating that the idea of the books came to her whilst idly channel surfing through the American media panoply and seeing images of reality TV and celebrity obsessed drivel dovetail into horrendous footage of young men and women being shredded in the deserts, cities and plains of Iraq and Afghanistan. After the success of the first melee Katnis (Lawrence) finds herself as the unspoken symbol of a potential revolution, her symbolic romance with her collegial survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) now used by the oppressive dystopian regime as another media simulacrum to beguile and distract the masses. Understanding her potential burgeoning symbolic power the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) orders a new iteration of the gladiatorial games, foisting previous survivors of all ages and aptitudes into a merciless battle to the death in a deadly new realm designed by the hilariously monikered Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In order to navigate these threats Katnis enlists the aid of her colleagues including the booze sodden Haywitch (Woody Harrelson) her costume designer Chinna (Leni Kravitz) and aide-de-camp Effie (Elizabeth Berkerly), a flamboyant sort whose wardrobe makes Lady Gaga look like Mother Teresa.
I am mystified at the $130 million tag attached to this picture, I don’t particularly care for analysing dreary box office league tables but when you’re looking at movies from a cultural standpoint the economics can be instructive, the opening couple of days has recouped the production budget so evidently there is a strong affection for the material but here’s my point – I cannot for the life of me see where that money has been spent. For the first hour Catching Fire comes across as a 1990’s Dolph Lungren actioner from a production design standpoint, complete with stock stormtrooper garb, sub-par futuristic weaponry and a grubby charcoal filter of photography, they really could have gone much further with the Soviet / Roman influences which buttresses the dictatorship but director Francis I Am Legend Lawrence seems to have very little imagination in a directorial or visual sense. If anything it has the dimensions of a modest SF TV series when assessing the coverage and pacing, and the fact my mind slipped into this analytical mode says it all when considering the emotional pull of the characters or an interest in what turns the plot may take.
But this is the entire ambit of the picture, it has zero directorial influence and mostly unfolds in standard two shot close-up models whilst the action scenes err on the side of pedestrian, so even when the film slightly switches gears around a dreary hour in it is much to late to immolate a medal once the competition starts. It’s quite frustrating given the potent charge that the material can engender, a disaffected but passionate youth thrown literally to the wolves in order to maintain the corporate status quo, when entertainment is a propaganda tool which is not perhaps as proficient as its practitioners pray.
When the games begin the coverage remains within the combat zone aside from an all to rare cutaway to Hoffman prowling around his control room or to provide redundant insights into Presidents Snow’s ineffectual oversight, the film could have benefited from a wider perspective of this future world, of the drones and mentally enslaved glued to the combat from their homes and hovels, so as such the film feels very isolated and tame, the satire fizzles when it should defiantly spark. With no emotional charge being generated from either Katnis’s colleagues or her opponents I’m guessing that Jennifer and Woody are simply enjoying a nice fat pay cheque, particularly the former after her Oscar win with that fantastic turn in Silver Linings Playbook and holding her own with grizzled veterans such as De Niro. It also has one of the most blatantly signposted twists of the year which of course I’ll not reveal, and when you can’t even get a freaky turn out of Amanda Plumber who has spent her entire career specialising in fractured loons clearly not even lip-service is being paid to performance.
Lawrence is a terrific actress and she is simply wasted in this franchise, although she does entertain a curious mix of vulnerability and strength the dialogue doesn’t serve to her strengths , and only one character beat with her sister is the films only desperate grasp for poignancy. Instead the film prefers to tread a barely interesting romantic triangle between her District 12 dreamboat beau and Peeta’s confused fumblings which the Onion’s esteemed film critic firmly incinerates here. Now yes I believe I can hear your eyes rolling from here, the film is clearly not to my demographic, it’s a film perhaps designed for teenagers and fans of the books so perhaps I’m being ridiculous for criticising such priorities in design and youthful execution, but I do think that its slightly patronising to its target audience in that regard and a little political satire and would not have gone amiss. The closing credits warbling of the oh so tepid Coldplay is Catching Fire’s final temperature – this is a film which generates no heat, thematic or kinematic;