Movie Review Rant : Catching Fire (2013)

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As I write this sentence, Catching Fire (2013), the sequel to The Hunger Games (2012), is encroaching upon the $700mil box office mark.  It’s a huge film, and there are a lot of things to love about it.

Before I get to my rant/review, here are a couple quick notes:

  1. I hadn’t read the book when I saw the movie, so the reactions below will jump back and forth between placing the film in relation to the book and treating the film on its own terms.
  2. There are spoilers.
  3. Nothing is in any sort of order here.  Like my post on Riddick (2013), I’ll cover everything I feel like talking about as they come to me.
  4. I’ve discussed some of these things in the Shoot the WISB episode on Catching Fire over at The Skiffy and Fanty Show.

The World and POV Shifts
In the first film, there were a handful of cuts away from the central action to the characters involved behind the scenes:  the gamekeepers, the president, Haymitch, the folks at home, etc.  These served to give us a sense of the world in which these games are a centerpiece.  The problem with The Hunger Games was its inability to rationalize the system of oppression that made the games possible.  There were certainly attempts, but in the end you either had to accept the status quo or give up any possibility of immersion.

Catching Fire does a decent job rectifying this problem.  For one, it centralizes President Snow as the actual and real villain.  In the first film, the Capitol and the other players in the game were all potential villains, but here, Snow is never anything but.  From his first interactions with Katniss to the cut scenes showing him planning her torture and eventual defeat, Snow is the adversary the film has always needed:  he’s the face of all that is wrong with the Capitol.  For me, Snow provided the rationalization for the world that I needed.  His interest in oppression is partly about power, but it is also about his own myths about what revolution entails, such that preserving those myths and power structures becomes more important than considering the implications of one’s actions.  Snow, as such, continues to exert his authority — a largely dictatorial and malignant one — to preserve the system and to make sure nobody has the means or the will to challenge it.  The Hunger Games are simply a means to an end:  they’re a reminder of the past and a reminder of the power Snow/the Capitol wields.

A lot of the scenes that best express Snow’s justifications for his brutality are in his interactions with his granddaughter, who appears to become entranced by the symbolic rebellion of Katniss.  Presumably, she doesn’t understand what is happening in Panem, but the threat is there for Snow nonetheless:  if his own family can be turned against him, his ability to maintain order will be permanently compromised.  It’s a nice touch, as it would be too easy just to make Snow a vile, disgusting bag of skin, as he appears to be in the books.  Here, there are little hints of humanity in play, and so he becomes even more horrifying as a villain the more we realize how human he really is.

Likewise, the POV shifts are generally a good thing.  They give us an impression of the world, its logic, etc.  They also show us things we otherwise don’t get to see in the book, which helps the film avoid the problem of having no viable method to display Katniss’ internal struggles.  The problem with these shifts, however, is in their unnecessary ability to trick us as viewers, which I’ll get into in the next section.

WANTED:  Clues That Logically Lead to X
There are two main issues with the structure of the film.  The second of these I’ll discuss in the section below on endings; the first I’ll cover here.

One of the new central characters is gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  At the end of Catching Fire, it is revealed to us that he, Haymitch, and several of the tributes have been conspiring to extricate Katniss from the games so she can remain the symbol for the upcoming revolution.  But unlike the book, which leaves a great number of clues as to Plutarch’s true allegiances, the film simply discards most of those clues for a shocking reveal.  This works in the book for one reason:  we’re in Katniss’ head the whole time.  But the book gives us plenty of clues.  It makes it clear that there’s something fishy going on, even if Katniss hasn’t quite figured it out yet.  The shock in the book, as such, is measured by revelation:  so that’s what all those clues are about.

In the film, most of those clues are gone.  For all intents and purposes, we’re supposed to believe Plutarch is just like everyone else in the Capitol, albeit perhaps more macabre than the average flashy Capitol-ite.  But almost every scene involving Plutarch doesn’t give us the impression that he’s actually one of the good guys, as he spends most of his time trying to convince President Snow that X method is the best way to destroy Katniss as person and revolutionary image.  His ideas are, in retrospect, not terribly good, but they are, in the moment, convincing in their brutality.  The shocking reveal, however, doesn’t have the benefit of proper foreshadowing or retrospective revelation, despite a good chunk of the film taking place outside of Katniss’ perspective.  And without that benefit, Plutarch’s apparent heroism is incomprehensible as a consequence of the plot, and, thus, neutered.  Were we supposed to hate Plutarch in the end as Katniss does, or find something redeemable in him?

Thankfully, this issue doesn’t affect the allied tributes.  There are enough moments where Finnick and Johanna hint that something else is going on, giving Katniss and the audience a moment to consider what that something might be.  If only the same had been true of Plutarch.

Jennifer Lawrence Rocks
To say that Lawrence delivers a superb performance in this film is really just an attempt to say something we already know.  She’s an exceptional actress, and she brings a great deal of emotional diversity to her reprised role.  That’s no small feat when you consider that she doesn’t have the benefit of internal monologue, which means we never get a clear sense of what is going on in the character’s head (something the book gives us in droves); she has to show us.

Though I obviously have opinions on the ending, I also think the final shot (a closeup of Lawrence’s face) is one of the more sure examples of the toll this world has had on the character of Katniss.  You can see the different emotions rolling through her face; she begins as visibly saddened, weaving swiftly through the stages of grief, until finally her sadness morphs into contempt and anger.  Then the film cuts out.  If the ending itself were actually about Katniss’ emotional shift, it could have ended on this scene without issue.  This is what we’ve been waiting for, after all:  Katniss is going to war.

But I’ll get to a discussion of the ending later.  Here, I’m concerned with Lawrence.  And she’s exceptional.  Frankly, Lawrence really carries this movie, which makes the nearly $700mil box office tag all the more exciting.  Perhaps we’ll see more films with female action leads in the near future.  Big films with lots of attitude.

If you’ve seen The Hunger Games, then you have a good sense of the main characters here.  Regardless, I think it is worth noting that, unlike other female protagonists or sidekicks in so many films of any genre, the female characters here are fascinating, even if they are only on screen for a short period of time.  Some of those characters are also quite complex, revealing their layers over time.

From the aggressive, “don’t give two shits” Johanna to the deceptively mindless and emotionally removed Effie to the reluctant but capable hero in Katniss, this film gives us a lot to work with when it comes to its female characters.  There’s also the rather motherly Mags, who doesn’t actually get to say anything in this film; yet, her bravery and kindness in action define her in ways that I think are quite significant in relation to the other characters.  Her relationship with the rude and lecherous Finnick, for example, provides a human dimension to her fellow male tribute, such that we’re able to put trust in someone we previously thought would seek to harm our original heroes.  Though I wish we could have received more from Mags, I still loved her as one of many quite different women in this film.

(And, yes, it passes the Bechdel test, too, as female characters frequently discuss things that don’t have anything to do with a boy; when they do talk about boys, it is frequently not about romantic entanglements, but salvation and violence.)

All of this led me to remark the some nights ago that it would be awesome if someone would make an Expendables-style film with an almost exclusive female action star cast.  That film is coming.

The point is this:  whatever flaws the film may have, it is a film where women are prominent players in a good portion of the action.  This is not to suggest that it is a perfect portrayal, but success shouldn’t be judged by the absurd standard of perfection anyway.

I didn’t honestly expect the creators of this film to actually address what seemed quite obvious to me after the first film:  these kids are going to be fucked up.  But they did.  Personally, I think they might have done more with the PTSD subplot, as a few bad dreams really doesn’t cover it, but it was clear after twenty minutes of film that this was never going to be about the ramifications of the Hunger Games in the personal lives of the victors.  I think that’s unfortunate, as actually addressing this issue with some emotional depth would lend credibility to the world.

Still, for a film meant, oddly enough, for younger crowds, it is rather poignant to address the consequences of violent confrontation, especially since we live in a time of sort-of-not-really-over-war.  If it had done so with greater focus, such as was done in Iron Man 3 (differently, of course), it might have added depth to Katniss’ character and provided a more cogent rational for her initial refusal to get involved in the ensuing rebellion.  This is something that the book handles well due to the strict focus on Katniss’ POV.  One scene in particular involves Peeta’s post-games “talent,” which all victors are basically required to share with the Capitol.  In Peeta’s case, he paints, but his paintings are all from his nightmares of the games, which Katniss initially finds horrifying; soon, however, she recognizes their value:  they are a cathartic release for Peeta.  His greater sensitivity to the pressures of violence are partly responsible for leading Katniss and Haymitch to the conclusion that they must save Peeta — granted, they also want to save him because he possesses a particular charm that might be useful later (Katniss recognizes that revolution is coming and that she will be a part of it quite early in the novel) and because, well, he’s just “good.”  Such a scene could have given the characters a moment to discuss their troubles, and it would likely have helped solidify the friendship that begins to develop in this film.

This film lacks an ending.  It just…ends.  While I appreciated the idea of Katniss destroying the arena and even the idea that this final act of rebellion within the terms of the capital would lead inexorably to an actual revolution, I still could not help finding the cliffhanger “look, the revolution has come” ending ineffective.  For one, it comes out of nowhere.  Katniss wakes up in a hovercraft to find that Plutarch, Haymitch, and Finnick have been conspiring to start a rebellion using her as a figurehead; she flips out, wakes up in a room with Gale looking over her, and we’re told “hey, the revolution has come, District 12 ain’t there no more, and…yeah…good times.”  That’s where it ends.

For me, all middle films have to leave some questions unanswered, but not the questions most pertinent to the film in question.  The conclusion to The Empire Strikes Back is anything but complete in the larger scheme:  Han has been kidnapped; Luke has failed to defeat Darth Vader; the rebels have gotten their asses handed to them; and there’s a lot left to be done.  Empire, however, is complete in terms of its self-contained plot:  all of those things I just mentioned were conclusions to events specific to this film.  But unlike Empire, Catching Fire never defines the terms of the next engagement, nor does it conclude all of its self-contained plot elements.  It drops us in a moment which is decontextualized and abstract.  Revolution has come, but we don’t really know what that means, particularly if we’re to accept the fact that District 12 has been wiped off the map in a matter of days (at most).  There is no explanation for the absence of many of the characters — presumably, most of them are dead, but it’s never an issue that gets discussed in any depth.  All we’re told is:  the revolution has started.

It’s that absence of a denouement which makes this a weaker film than the first.  Like Matrix Reloaded, we’re thrust into an entirely different world, but not one which has a basis or development out of something else.  Part of the problem, I think, is the structure of the other parts of the film; if the end result is the beginning of a revolution, it seems to me that the film needs to more accurately foreshadow this moment so the shocking revelation for Katniss need not be so shocking for us.  Shock is cheap.  It works once, but after you’ve seen it a few times, it loses its value.   But being able to piece together the clues in a concrete fashion adds something to the game.  We don’t have that here.  There are breadcrumbs, sure, but their meaning doesn’t naturally end with “revolution.”

Overall, I enjoyed the film.  I thought it was stronger than the first until the end, and I appreciated the clearer villains and attempts to rationalize the world, even if this whole system still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The biggest flaw for me, obviously, was the ending.  I particularly despise middle films that end on cliffhangers, which might explain why I initially despised the second Matrix film.  All films must end in some capacity, even if their unanswered questions will be continued elsewhere.  Still, if you haven’t seen it, you should do so before it leaves theaters for good.  Doing so supports an otherwise solid franchise and the possibility of more strong female leads like Katniss Everdeen — plus, it’s a glowing endorsement of Jennifer Lawrence, who I adore.

So that’s what I have to say on that.  For now…


Directing: 4/5
Cast:  4.5/5
Writing:  3/5
Visuals:  4/5
Adaptation: 3.5/5
Overall:  3.8/5 (76%)
Inflated Grade:  B (for solid acting, a stronger narrative thrust than the previous film, solid visuals, and suspense)
Value:  $9.00 (based on $10.50 max)

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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