Let's talk about movies (and TV shows)... Part III
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11-24-2013, 09:55 AM
Join Date: May 2011
Location: Canberra, Australia
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%, 199 reviews
Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Ardnt, Suzanne Collins
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth
I went to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire tonight... what an satisfying movie. It's fun, compelling, well-crafted, a logical continuation of the first one, and ... really clever.
To recap, this is the second of the Hunger Games movies, based on a trilogy of "young adult" novels by Suzanne Collins. In some futuristic dystopia called "Panem", there is a capital city of opulence and decadence, and 12 districts of poverty where the people labour. Every year, 2 members of each of the 12 districts compete in an event called the hunger games, where they fight each other in an isolated spot This is a somewhat of an allegory for the olympics (and a lot more), where every 4 years people from all over the world watched a manufactured spectacle which keeps them happy, and indeed politicians often deliver major announcements during the olympics to avoid political backlash. Note that what Suzanne Collins captures in her novels is in fact an allegory for the oldest political strategy: "bread and circuses".
In the first movie, Katniss Everdeen (from District 12), who is played by my lady-prospect Jennifer Lawrence, managed to survive the hunger games due to a combination of luck, athleticism, charisma, and cleverness. The second movie deals with the consequences of the first -- Katniss won the games in the first movie in a manner that captured the public's attention, and that attention is frustrating the authorities. They want to destroy her image, which eventually leads to her participating in the hunger games a second time.
That's the first thing this movie does well: it's a sequel which is based on the consequences of the events of the first movie, and those are almost always the best kinds of sequels (e.g. Godfather II, The Dark Knight). The second thing it does well is that the budget was doubled, which I think went to better sets and cinematography... this movie looks a lot better than the first. I thought the first one looked nice, mind you, but this second one just looks better. The third, is through the writing. I have not read the books, but I'm sure it must have been incredibly difficult to decide what to include and what not to include. For this task, Hollywood brought out the big guns, great screenwriters: oscar winners Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Ardnt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine). The fact these two brilliant writers were hired shows that Hollywood takes the franchise seriously, an unusual situation for one with a female protagonist. The hiring does pay off in better writing: there are a huge number of characters to cover in this movie, which is necessary for the story to work, and several of them are successfully given humanity. They're not just there. I was really moved when Peeta gave Katniss his necklace, and opened it up. By the way, that scene doesn't work because "it's sweet" or because it contains a boyfriend, mother, and sister... it works because all of the characters involved and their relationships are developed. We've seen the Primrose-Katniss relationship, we've felt and seen them evolve, and thus we care to see her in a necklace. We also know that it must be incredibly painful, and simultaneously kind, of Peeta to acknowledge in a warm manner that Gale is in fact the one Katniss loves. That is powerful here... and would be emotionally flat if the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle had not been developed.
But thinking about it: Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, Primrose, Finnick, and a few others... that's a hell of a lot of characters with effective personalities. I didn't realise it, but in hindsight Effie in the first movie was a caricature... she wasn't one this time. Of interest, there is a scientifically competent character in the movie, Beetee played by Jeffrey Wright, who is not a steve urkel caricature. He builds a reasonable and effective device, which moves the story forward, and as plausible social skills and exists for purposes beyond comic relief. Marvel cinema and other Hollywood hacks should take note.
But really, what I enjoyed most about HG:CF I think, and this goes back to Suzanne Collins... is that it's so damn clever. There are several times where a favoured character is in a bind of some sort, and the way the situation is resolved is frequently clever. When Gale is about to get killed, Katniss stands in front of him, and this is where a lot of writers would stop. But then.. Haymitch and Peeta also get in the way, and talk, and it's a speech that only Haymitch could give given how they have developed the characters, and then the situation is resolved. Peeta's speech to district 11 was really well thought out. I liked the construction of the arena, and how it was far scarier than the first one, and how the characters figured out how it worked. I liked the dress Katniss wore, I thought that was a good trick and I got a high from it, the way she went from a wedding dress to a mocking jay dress. I then thought it was over, I had my cleverness high, and ... Peeta tops that by mentioning a baby: "boom!"
And ... I loved how Katniss came out of the arena alive. I was wondering the entire time how she was going to survive (given that she had to survive), and if her method as survival was going to be as clever as it was in the first movie or just a run-of-the-mill deus ex machina. I'm happy to say that ... her means of survival was as clever as in the first story. [SPOILER]She connects some wire to an arrow with a tree, right before lightning hits, to destroy a force field over the dome. This is just... such perfect writing. First of all it's developed throughout the movie, as she learns where the force field comes from and why it's there and how it behaves, and the way she learns of it is organic, not forced. Her manner of hitting ties several plot elements and makes it relevant. Finally, it's a potent metaphor. She defeats the hunger games by firing the authority's own poison (the lightning) right back at them, and using their own defences against them. The only reason she can escape is exactly because they had set up that force field. [/SPOILER].
There are a few flaws in the movie, which I forgive because the product is really good.
- Each of the 12 districts has 2 past winners, but we were told in the previous movie that districts 1 and 2 almost always win;
- One thing I liked about the first movie is that they never told us that the capital city was decadent, they only showed it. I was a bit let down when Katniss was told at the party that yeah, the party is wasteful. I didn't think that exposition-by-dialogue was necessary;
- The water wipes away the poison from the gas? what?;
- I don't like cliffhanger endings;
These are very minor complaints though. Overall, this was a fun movie, a well-crafted movie, with good characters, good world-building, and actual themes. Go see it. See the first one first though if you have not yet.
My grade: A-
Ongoing 2013 movie ranking list:
2) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
-- steep dropoff --
5) Man of Steel
6) Pacific Rim
-- another steep drop off --
9 ) Star Trek into Darkness
10) Thor 2: The Dark World
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