The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) ***½
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) won the 74th annual Hunger Games via an ingenious, unprecedented cheat. After all the other contestants had fought to mutual extermination, she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow District 12 tribute, entered into a poison-berry suicide pact rather than attempt to kill each other as game protocol required. In doing so, Katniss and Peeta didn’t just violate the rules. The Hunger Games can have no more than one winner, but they must have a winner; by gobbling down those handfuls of deadly nightshade, the kids from District 12 were threatening to scupper the entire game. In order to salvage the situation, the games officials were forced to break the rules themselves by intervening at the last moment to permit Katniss and Peeta to share the victor’s laurels for the year. Catching Fire, the first of three projected sequels to The Hunger Games, is all about the fallout from the Everdeen girl’s outsmarting the system. In dealing with that fallout, it happily leaves itself little choice but to address nearly all of my complaints with the first film, while simultaneously growing beyond the status of a de facto American remake of Battle Royale hamstrung by a PG-13 rating. By delving deeper into the previously little-explored workings of its fictional world, Catching Fire becomes a much more mature and intelligently realized dystopia than its predecessor.
For starters, we now have some idea what you get for winning the Hunger Games. Katniss, her mother (Paula Malcolmson), and her little sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), now reside in a handsome, sturdy house in District 12’s Victors’ Village, with their every need provided for on the government’s dime, and an apparently considerable cash stipend for Katniss herself on top of that, the whole arrangement to be maintained for the rest of their natural lives. Mind you, the historically poor performance of District 12 tributes means that the Victors’ Village is rather a lonely place. The sole other inhabitants are Peeta and long-ago winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), neither of whom apparently have any living family left. Also, the spoils of victory have not brought any of these people happiness. Haymitch, as we saw last time, is a 24-7 drunk. Katniss can barely hunt anymore, every turkey, deer, or rabbit she draws down on with her bow suddenly appearing to her as another teenager the instant she lets go of the string. And on top of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the winners must contend with the after-effects of the trumped-up romance between Katniss and Peeta that made them such favorites in the Capital, where the Hunger Games are the reality TV event of the year. Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’s pre-stardom boyfriend, can’t quite believe her assurances that it was just an act put on to win sponsors in the Capital audience. Peeta, who really does love Katniss, conversely feels abandoned and betrayed now that things are back to “normal” and Katniss has returned to Gale. And Katniss has had her ability to form genuine romantic attachments damaged at its core by the experience of faking love for the sake of survival.
All that teen melodrama pales, however, beside the menacing interest that Panem’s totalitarian government has taken in keeping up the illusion of Katniss and Peeta’s epic love. It all comes back to that stunt with the nightshade. If Katniss and Peeta were going to kill themselves because they were so in love that neither one could face living without the other, then that’s drama. That’s spectacle, that’s showmanship, that’s a gripping human interest story of exactly the garish but socially negligible sort that keeps the public distracted and entertained. But if their suicide pact was aimed at sabotaging the ritual bloodletting of the Hunger Games, then that’s defiance. That’s rebellion. That’s a bid for martyrdom, and if there’s one thing the government can’t abide, it’s a martyr to the cause of rebellion. So vital is that distinction that President Snow himself (Donald Sutherland) pays a visit to the Everdeen house on the eve of Katniss and Peeta’s cross-country victory tour to impress upon her his expectation that the forthcoming round of personal appearances in the districts will read as the culmination of a love story, utterly devoid of political meaning. Katniss may be too big a star for Snow to touch directly without courting exactly the unrest he wishes to forestall, but nobody outside the girl’s hometown has ever heard of Gale. He could be made to disappear without costing the regime a thing.
What Snow fails to grasp is that these are a couple of kids he’s dealing with. Teenagers are impulsive, and can’t be relied upon to parse the political implications of, say, volunteering to donate one month’s worth of their annual stipend to the families of the District 11 tributes who helped them in the games last year even though a strict accounting of self-interest would have argued against it. That act of generosity earns the victors a rebel salute from several members of the District 11 crowd, which in turn buys the crowd a bloody attack from the riot cops in attendance, culminating in the on-the-spot execution of the first man to raise his hand. That, needless to say, is hardly the sort of performance Snow had in mind. Nor, for equal and opposite reasons, are the terrorized rote recitals of speeches prepared by District 12 Hunger Games agent Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) that the kids croak out at each of the subsequent stops on the tour. Having been as much as told that Gale’s survival depends on Snow’s satisfaction with her impersonation of a girl besotted with love, Katniss signs on for a truly desperate gambit— she agrees to marry Peeta. At the climactic reception ball on the grounds of the presidential palace, Snow allows as that’s good enough for now.
Also at that ball, Katniss makes an unexpected introduction. Among the guests is a shifty-looking middle-aged man named Plutarch Heavensbee (Red Dragon’s Philip Seymour Hoffman), who informs her that he’s taken over from the unfortunate Seneca Crane as director of the Hunger Games. Apparently he’d held the post before, but retired. When Katniss remarks that running the games seems to her like a thankless and dangerous job, Plutarch answers with what could equally well be a veiled threat or a coded message, depending on how we read the clear allusion to the girl’s own experiences: “I volunteered for it.” Later, we see that Heavensbee’s job description is rather broader than Crane’s was. It isn’t just the Hunger Games he’s supposed to be managing, but the entire official response to the Katniss Everdeen situation. Heavensbee works very closely with Snow on ways to prevent her from functioning as a totem of rebellion as rioting spreads from one district to another and dissidents increasingly package their message in symbols drawn from her appearance and activities during last year’s games. Plutarch’s basic strategy is a simple one: discredit Katniss. But without even trying— indeed, without even wanting the revolutionary credibility that Heavensbee seeks to take away from her— Katniss keeps outmaneuvering those efforts.
Then a bit of temporal happenstance gives the regime back the upper hand. Under the Treaty of the Treason, which established the current relationship between the Capital and the districts, the Hunger Games go off-model every 25 years. There’s no defined program for what makes the Quarter Quell different from the regular games; that’s completely up to the game director, the president, and their respective senses of showmanship. Heavensbee devises an almost admirably devilish plan for this year’s Quarter Quell, which promises to accomplish everything that his containment efforts thus far have not. The contestants for the 75th Hunger Games will be drawn from among the pool of surviving victors, for an all-star Olympiad of mass slaughter. And since Katniss just happens to be the only female victor ever from District 12, hers will perforce be the only name in the girls’ lottery when Effie Trinket makes her ritual selection. It’s brilliant, really. The Hunger Games created Katniss, and they’ll destroy her, too.
Or will they? It turns out that Heavensbee’s all stars are really pissed off about this double jeopardy business, even the “careerist” players from Districts 1 and 2. District 7’s Johanna Mason (Jena Malone, from Sucker Punch and The Ruins) speaks for pretty much everybody when she tells Hunger Games MC Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), “The deal was, I’d get to spend the rest of my life in peace. Now you’re trying to kill me again! Fuck that [bleeped for television], and fuck everybody [bleeped again for television] who had anything to do with it!” All 24 of the tributes devote their pre-game TV appearances to winning audience sympathy for their unprecedented plight in one way or another (Peeta, always cleverer than Katniss when it comes to these things, drops a five-megaton bullshit bomb about them expecting a baby), apparently on the theory that popular opinion in the Capital might be the one thing stronger than the regime’s resolve. But even after that tactic fails, it’s obvious that the games this year will be played differently. This year, there are numerous contestants who fully understand who the real enemy is, and who are more interested in striking a blow against the system than they are in mere survival. Katniss and Peeta, obviously, fall into that category. So, as you might have guessed, does Johanna. But the revolutionary cell in the arena ultimately numbers over a quarter of the participants. The rest are a motley bunch: insane geniuses Beetee (Jeffrey Wright, of Shaft and Invasion) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer, from Needful Things and The Prophecy); Mags (Lynn Cohen), the oldest remaining victor, whose feeble body conceals the courage of a wolverine; and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, of Snow White and the Huntsman and The Lost Future), an outwardly untrustworthy pretty boy who would fight the whole world if that’s what it took to keep Mags safe. Like last time, Katniss and her allies will have the District 12 production crew— Effie, Haymitch, and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz)— working the crowd for them, but that aid will be nothing beside their other form of outside assistance in this year’s games. The resistance to Snow’s regime is far more organized than the state-controlled media have let on, and the rebellion has a deep-cover agent on the Hunger Games staff itself.
I’m hesitant to make pronouncements about people being right or wrong for a series of films based on books I’ve never read, but Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence really does seem to get the project in a way that Gary Ross (who directed the original The Hunger Games) did not. Although fans of the books will surely find things to quibble about (fans are like that, after all), those who come to this movie solely as a continuation of its predecessor will find a richer, more complex, better delineated world than the one they encountered last time. With the first-act victory tour and the politicking surrounding it, Catching Fire conveys in one concise sequence a clearer picture of Panem society than came across in the whole of the first film. A few things, like the geographical extent and population of the twelve districts, still don’t quite make sense, but easily three quarters of what we were left wondering before snaps right into place between Snow’s pre-tour visit to Katniss and the execution of the dissident in District 11. It’s essential that it should be so, too, because Catching Fire establishes in no uncertain terms that the overarching story of this series is going to be about how totalitarian regimes inadvertently contribute to their own overthrow. Simplistic fables of how the good guys always win can afford not to care how the Evil Empire works, but a parable of political overreach requires more depth and sophistication.
Commendably, much of the added depth and sophistication in Catching Fire is psychological, focusing on characters other than Katniss and Peeta. As a practical matter, this means that while Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is still the most stand-out impressive thing in Catching Fire, she gets a lot more help from the rest of the cast than she did in The Hunger Games. The heightened scrutiny of the characters’ motives is an across-the-board phenomenon, too, encompassing the other contestants in the Quarter Quell, Capital residents like Cinna and Effie, common people in the districts, and even representatives of the regime itself. Indeed, the most astute character moment in the film is probably the scene in which Snow is spending time with his granddaughter (Erika Bierman), and notices that she’s wearing her hair in the same side-braid style favored by Katniss. All the girls at school are doing it now, the child says before turning her attention back to her homework. Snow is intensely troubled, but says nothing more about it; if he did, then he’d have to explain, and nothing good would come of that. With Snow and his granddaughter as with all the other characters, the key point is that Catching Fire consistently humanizes them, even when it would be more natural to treat them instead as pure cartoons. The surest sign of Catching Fire’s superiority over its predecessor is that even Effie gets to be an actual person this time.
This is still a sci-fi action movie, though, so it needs some brawn to go along with its upgraded brain. Fortunately that too is an area of improvement. Because the Quarter Quell occupies less of the running time than did the titular contest in The Hunger Games, that section of the movie necessarily maintains a tauter and more consistent pace. The change I was really happy to see, though, was a less frenetic touch with the camera during moments of high peril. To be sure, The Hunger Games usually had a legitimate reason for its excesses in that direction. Ross was attempting to simulate the books’ first-person narrative voice without resorting to the clumsy and overly literal route of a first-person camera perspective, so it made sense to deprive us of a clear fix on the action in situations where Katniss wouldn’t have one, either. But Catching Fire is less specifically Katniss’s story, so a more “objective” camera feel is appropriate here. It’s also enormously welcome after a decade and more of overboard efforts to give action movie audiences vertigo and motion sickness for the sake of verisimilitude. I hope Francis Lawrence stays onboard for Mockingjay and whatever they plan to call the fourth film. He’s got the series running on all cylinders and pointed in the right direction.