Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (another persepctive)

Whetting our appetites 

When the first Hunger Games film was released last year, it came as a breath of fresh air. Not only for its teenage girl target audience, who had been served a stale diet of Twilight films by Hollywood in preceding years, but also through its dependence on character and plot over special effects, three dimensional female lead, and the sincerity and intelligence of its political satire. 

With this in mind, the series’ second installment The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is welcomed with open arms. And right from the off we’re in familiar territory, watching Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting in the woods with her trademark bow and arrow. But, when the animal she fires at transforms into a child in her imagination, it becomes clear that life for PTSD-suffering Katniss is far from
what it once was following her victory at the hunger games.

This sets a pattern for much of the film; scenes and scenarios from the first film are revisited, only this time are tinged with added tension and apprehension. When Katniss and fellow winner Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) are presented in front of the district crowds, this time as champions rather than candidates, they witness a reaction of sombre resistance against the repressive state, which, much to their horror, is ruthlessly punished.  

Early on, the plot centres round Katniss struggling to come to terms with her new found status as figure of hope for an increasingly rebellious populous. On her obligatory victory tour visiting all twelve districts, she sparks, albeit unwittingly, a rebellious fervour that threatens to reach boiling point. These tremors of revolutionary activity are the most compelling aspect of the films, and feel like the natural direction for the sequel to take following the climax of the previous film. 

However, the film’s title retains ‘The Hunger Games’ for a reason, as the president (Donald Sutherland) decides to stage a special edition of the annual event featuring all the previous winners, ostensibly to celebrate the games’ 75th anniversary, but in reality to kill Katniss and crush the hope of the increasingly restless masses. 

This move may make sense as a political strategy from the president, but for the purposes of the film it’s a little disappointing. Rather than diving into the inevitable revolution, we’re instead treated to another round of the hunger games, only this time without the originality and freshness that made them so intriguing first time round. The build up to the games - featuring once more Woody Harrelson’s drunken mentor Haymitch, Lenny Kravitz’s noble stylist Cinna and Elizabeth Banks’ shallow but good-hearted Effie - may be charged with a sense of impending doom, but at times it does feel as if we’re going through the motions. 

One thing that most of the cinema’s best sequels have in common is the introduction of new elements to expand upon the ideas presented in the preceding film. In The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, events take place in the distinctly novel setting of the snowy planet Hoth, while later the iconic character Yoda makes his first (and best) appearance. The Two Towers, meanwhile, shifted the focus away from the relatively small scale of The Fellowship of the Ring and revolved around the grand set piece of the battle of Helms Deep, as well as introducing a fascinating new character in Gollum. 

By contrast, the final act of Catching Fire pits its characters in an almost identical forest to once more compete in the hunger games. Nothing substantial has been added to the ideas of the first instalment, with the games playing out in much the same fashion they did first time round, and the most significant new character, an ambiguous political figure played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is given very few lines. 

All this said, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a very enjoyable film, and deserves credit for its moral and political complexity, as well as Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant imagining of her character. As blockbusters go it’s one of the most intelligent, even consciously undermining the very things you’d expect such a film to contain; Katniss’ romances are presented either as distractions that must be sacrificed for the greater good, or as an invention constructed by the media, while the handsome love interest takes his shirt off not for the audience to swoon, but to receive a flogging at the hands of the police.  

But all in all this feels like a transitional film getting us to the next point in the story’s arc. The last fifteen minutes are spectacular and leave us hungry for the next film; but this instalment would have benefited from getting there quicker.


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