By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” occurs in a time and place like ours, only more so. The Haves are having their way, and the Have-nots are doing what the Haves say, but only for the most part. So hark, the annual Hunger Games, the 75th to be specific, dubbed this time The Quarter Quell, have been called. It is the circus part of the ancient Roman ploy of bread and circus to maintain control of a repressed proletariat. Alas, little time is devoted to the cuisine aspect, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Soylent Green were on the menu.
In any case, ardent followers of Suzanne Collins’s post-apocalyptic poli sci fantasy will doubtlessly assemble in lockstep to cheer the heroic efforts of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the movie franchise’s Jeanne d’Arc. Ensconced en masse, they will observe in awe, hold their breath with every drawing of her powerful, life–defending bow and eagerly scrutinize director Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of the author’s words: i.e. – Is it better than issue #1, is it true to the book, and is all the minutiae properly delineated?
Furthermore, they will know all the players’ names, all the rules of the game, especially the ones that will be unfairly abrogated, and, having not once referred to their wristwatches (actually, their cellphones), will lament when the film must inevitably end.
As for us out-of-towners, members of the Great Unwashed merely on assignment in this cinema holy land, things are different. Ours is but to scratch our heads and wonder just how many permutations of George Orwell’s “1984” succeeding generations will be treated to before the cautionary tale is no longer valid, either because we’ve absolutely staved off the portentous totalitarianism, or absolutely haven’t?
It’s all there in concentrated form…the dictator, President Snow, portrayed with steely savvy by Donald Sutherland, aided by his chief propagandist/strategist/games organizer, Plutarch Heavensbee, wittily exacted by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Others, playing the middle ground between fascist hierarchy and the revolution that is always in the air, have equally whimsical, Dickensian names.
Woody Harrelson reprises his role of Haymitch Abernathy, winner of the 50th games, devout alcoholic and oftentimes enigmatic mentor to Katniss and her comrade-in-arms, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who the state insists must be perceived as Katniss’s love interest. It’s a bit of a sticky wicket for the pair since Peeta really does love Katniss, who in turn really loves hunky Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). ‘Sigh,’ opines your hopelessly romantic teen within…‘isn’t that always the way?’
But it’s the role model that Jennifer Lawrence’s pretty, brave and altruistic Katniss Everdeen projects that most draws the intended crowd away from equally spectacular but spiritually hollow demonstrations of the motion picture art being shown elsewhere in the multiplex. Even out-of-touch, cynical film critics agonizingly comparing the film’s length to the seemingly endless “Reds” (1981) know that. Though in all fairness, the latter is 49 minutes longer.
And while we’re being fair, once you pick it apart, though there’s nothing new under the sun here, politically, filmically or in the storytelling, there is a reasonably responsible intelligence to the doings, albeit dramatically adjusted for its niche audience. Hence, if you concur that its frightening message about the threat of dictatorship increasing in direct proportion to the rift between rich and poor must be impressed regularly, then you’ll agree the telling has fallen in capable hands.
Witness the tension…the dangerous, mutual disrespect between Katniss and President Snow, each with much to either lose or gain. Forced into the games once again when her victory tour of the nation’s district is construed as disingenuousness by his highness, Katniss is a harried mixture of emotions, threatened by reprisals upon her family if she doesn’t adhere to company policy. That is, smile for the people and let them know how much you love the government of Panem.
Likewise, President Coriolanus Snow knows full well the implications of making this charismatic thorn in his side a martyr. Katniss knows it too, and brazenly allows hints of defiance if not rebellion. However, Snow is running the game and, as such, can stack the deck. A who’s who of previous Hunger Games winners—stone-cold killers all— are to compete in the Quell. And if our gal should meet her demise in the ensuing competition, well, then, Snow would be absolved, or so he figures.
All this plotting and scheming is neatly meshed with a diligently choreographed scenario of jungle warfare, replete with alliances true and false, deadly showdowns, hair-raising thrills, special effects spills and no small amount of Rube Goldberg gimmickry to enhance the awe. “Which is well and good if that’s your bag, man,” as I colloquially related to a contemporary who deemed me an emissary from a sub-culture far, far away. To which he responded, “Well, at least they’re off the vampires.”
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” rated PG-13, is a Lionsgate release directed by Francis Lawrence and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth and Donald Sutherland. Running time: 146 minutes
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