Monday 13 November 2023

From the archive: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

Though it emerged last March, it feels an age since
the first Hunger Games movie, and you sense the Hollywood studios – still mourning the loss of the Potter and Twilight cash cows, and seeing too many Percy Jacksons and Mortal Instruments vanishing without much box-office trace – praying for another substantial YA-derived hit.

That first film was a gamble, and tentative with it, choosing to tone down its Battle Royale-like scenario to secure a family-friendly rating. The two-hour, 25-minute Catching Fire, conversely, arrives as an example of what can happen when a franchise knows it has an inbuilt audience: determined to repeat its initial success, it gets repetitive and bloats out, marked by that grim, Potterish devotion to filming every last semi-colon of its source material. We’re surely heading toward that Deathly Hallows/Breaking Dawn moment when a single book will be split into two films to maximise revenue streams: this would-be revolutionary narrative has an eye on the pockets of the masses.

Where its YA predecessors were on some level timeless fantasies, The Hunger Games can be dated specifically to the reality-TV era. The first film saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) elevated from nobody to popular idol; here, she’s firmly installed as a celebrity, paraded before the proletariat (among whom she has inspired a fashionable haircut), forced into a stage-managed romance with unthreatening teammate Peter (Josh Hutcherson), and generally becoming the figurehead for a regime of increasingly oppressive methods.

On some level, Katniss’s predicament is meant to be enjoyable, relatable, perhaps even aspirational – and it’s here that this franchises deviates from its predecessors. For all their internal crises and conflicts, the worlds of Harry Potter and Bella Swan were essentially idylls – safe, nurturing environments in which young characters and cinemagoers develop and realise their powers.

Playing out around brutalist architecture and snowy wastelands that recall some crumbling former Soviet republic, The Hunger Games is trying to sell us a dystopia as easy-access escapism, and might only have made the money it so far has in a society that has contrived to turn the dire warning of Orwell’s Big Brother into a regular paying gig for Brian Dowling.

The new film is largely po-faced about this business – grindingly so, right through to the Coldplay song hung over the end credits like a collaborator’s corpse – yet at the same time, it’s just too timid to commit to the full horror of its own story world; given that this year’s Games no longer involves young children, but the kind of sexy grown-ups we normally see getting bashed around in 12A action-adventure vehicles, you could say Catching Fire shies even further away from it.

To make the oppression harsher or any more visible would perhaps reveal the characters’ peculiarly shrugging, often acquiescing responses to it – mirroring, perhaps, most iPhone-checking young cinemagoers’ attitude to corporate capitalism – as unheroic indeed. Though the new film’s closing moments offer a more spectacular variant of The Truman Show, exposing some of this world’s limiting infrastructure, one keeps waiting for these kids to properly rebel – and there are long, windy stretches in Catching Fire where that day still seems a long way off, or several films down the line.

Lawrence, who showed in Silver Linings Playbook that she could be a spontaneous, unorthodox presence, here reverts to the waxily inexpressive Katniss of film one, essentially playing her own action figurine, a mannequin in search of her next makeover. This Katniss apparently enjoys all the attention and pretty dresses the Games throw her way (as any young actress would) – even if these perks come at the expense of the lives of others.

She’s comprehensively shown up, this time around, by the arrival of the much-underrated Jena Malone – the missing link between Juliette Lewis and Mary-Louise Parker, a wild child with the smarts to flourish in the woods – as a rival player who happily strips naked before Katniss and Peter, and thinks nothing of swearing on live TV. Here at last is someone you could see making a decent fist of manning the barricades – and this series would, you suspect, be a great deal more fun with a 15 certificate and Malone in the Katniss role.

The Games we have can as yet only gesture in the direction of insurrection, because – as a product of the same entertainment industry it comes to mock – it seeks to make big bucks, not waves or trouble. The lengthier running time gave me additional pause to consider just why I find this franchise quite so hard to root for, and it may boil down to this: that Katniss and Peter aren’t rebels but apparatchiks, cool-headed products of the state rather than viable flesh-and-blood alternatives to it, being rewarded rather too well for assuming their part amid these circuses. They will only be truly free when the world stops watching.

(MovieMail, November 2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is available to stream via NOW TV, to rent via Prime Video and YouTube, and is available on DVD through Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

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