She’s Not Here to Make Friends… Or Is She?
For a movie that rips off a million older movies about to-the-death game shows set in totalitarian futures, the surprise of Catching Fire is that it’s so perfectly tailored to this particular time and place. Aimed at a generation of kids who are generally perceived as being entitled celebrity wannabes aspiring to their own reality shows, the hero of The Hunger Games is, essentially, a chick who’s really good at being famous. Like a modern celebrity, it hardly matters how or why she’s famous, only what she does with it.
While she has a sweet side braid and bow skills, and does spend significant portions of the film hopping around like Legolas and doing the usual sassy killer Joss Whedon chop-socky routine, what makes Katniss unique is that her main skill is being able to manipulate the media. She knows how to captivate the public by creating Bachelorette-style, is-it-real-or-is-it-for-the-cameras relationship drama, and effortlessly manufactures is-she-or-isn’t-she-pregnant tabloid headlines that grow her brand. Her most important sidekicks? Her sham TV boyfriend and her genius stylist. She’s a publicist’s dream.
Has there ever been another hero’s journey story where one of the pivotal scenes involved creating a red carpet look? In the world of The Hunger Games, staged paparazzi events are a matter of life and death! She’s not here to make friends, she’s here to change the world! The whole thing is so perfectly Post-Empire that it probably gives Bret Easton Ellis a big boner. Katniss offers the promise of being able to triumph over evil just by making great reality TV. I can’t decide whether it’s evil, brilliant, or both.
First things first, the only reason we’re even able to discuss the world of Catching Fire in terms of what it all means is director Francis Lawrence, who actually made Catching Fire unblurry enough to see it, unlike Gary Ross’s work on the last one. Amazing the things you notice about a story when you’re not watching it unfold from the inside of a washing machine
The whole Hunger Games gang is back in Catching Fire – Cat Nips, Pita Bread, Heymitch Jablome, Lenny Kravitz’ Eyeliner, the Fop Lady – along with a few new faces, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing The Guy Who Forgot His Silly Costume, who replaces Futurebeard as Hunger Games’ lead game designer. Pour one out for Futurebeard, you guys. He may be gone, but I’ll never forget his sweet beard.
We catch up with Katniss back in District 12, after her star-making turn in last year’s Hunger Games. She’s a big star now, but she’s mostly gotten back to her old tricks, shooting turkeys in the forbidden zone and hanging with her boyfriend Gail. Somewhere, Pita Bread bakes a cake with her picture on it and cries.
She’s not overtly political, but the government sees her as a threat because of her power, and because the people see her as a symbol of, and we’re told this many, many times, hope. The hope part is constantly repeated but never really explained (because she didn’t want to kill her boyfriend to please the government, I guess?). In any case, the film does a pretty great job depicting the paranoia of living in a totalitarian state. It’s not so much that day-to-day life is so much more difficult or violent, necessarily, it’s the stressful uncertainty of it all, the constant gossip and whispers, the way the state can just decide to kill some people one day over hearsay, a whim, one perceived slight. The state as unstable boyfriend. The realistic world of totalitarianism is so unexpected, it’s not the kind of thing you expect to see in a PG-13 teenybopper movie aimed at wiener kids.
Cat Nips and Pita Bread embark on a 12-district barnstorming tour, part of their duties as Hunger Games winners, where they have to find a balance between maintaining the public’s trust in a time of strife and keeping the government happy so their families don’t get murdered. All the while, Pita has to grapple with being completely smitten with Cat Nips, even when he knows she’s only pretending. It’s easy to identify with him because no one’s easier to fall for than Jennifer Lawrence.
At some point, the government decides the way to deal with Katniss is through a “quarter quell,” a new Hunger Games where the contestants are all chosen from past winners, like Chopped Champions. After opening so realistically, as the actual games begin, the film starts to descend into popcorny hokum. We get introduced to a whole new crop of contestants, who basically get introduced as baseball cards, complete with attributes and characterizations as narrowly-defined as Snow White’s dwarves – sneezy, brainy, stabby, and slut! One guy is supposedly an expert at “underwater combat.” Ooh, will we get to see this in action??? Oh, the suspense. Chekhov’s Trident, I call it. The only good thing about it is Stanley Tucci as the TV host master of ceremonies, with his giant teeth and fourth grade girl’s ponytail. My God, he’s magnificent. I could watch an entire movie of just this character.
Enjoyable acting, unfortunately, does not extend to most of the new characters, including a thoroughly grating Jena Malone and that blond guy from Blue Mountain State, whose cheesy Ken doll look always makes me think I’m watching the setup for a gay porn or something. Amanda Plummer, aka Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction, is even worse. She plays one of the brainy smurfs (autistic smurf, specifically), and at one point during the games she just starts muttering “Tick Tock”, which of course is actually an important epiphany once the others figure out what the hell she’s talking about. BOOM, GOLDBLUM’D. Also, if your only acting shtick is muttering like an insane person, maybe it’s time for a new shtick? If the goal was to get us praying for her death, mission accomplished.
Katniss eventually becomes a symbol and inspires the populace and blah blah blah. The games themselves are much more dull than the build up, and tone-wise feels like it belongs in a different movie. But it’s not terrible. Much better executed than in the last movie. It was all fine until they decided to squeeze a Christ metaphor in there.
For the love of God, action directors, depicting your protagonist as an arms spread, martyring, sacrificial Christ figure is easily the most played out, least insightful, host hoary hackneyed f*cking thing you could ever do. SUPERMAN IS JESUS! ROBOCOP IS JESUS! NEO IS JESUS! KATNISS IS JESUS!
IF EVERYONE IS JESUS BEING JESUS CEASES TO BE INTERESTING. STOP IT.
Katniss is an interesting character, a reality show heroine for the reality show age, and Catching Fire is weirdly insightful in its critiques of fascism. Oddly, it’s the actual premise of the Hunger Games, the part where a bunch of kids have to fight to the death on a computerized island, that holds it back from being something more. Catching Fire ends on a cliffhanger, which is ballsyish, but also blatantly capitalistic. I guess we’ll pay again to see how this plays out. But will we be happy about it? Only if it involves lots more Stanley Tooch.