A review of “Catching Fire”

I went to see Catching Fire today–

I am putting all my spoilerish tendencies in a box for this review, which is hard because they’re wiggly little bastards and some of them bite. If you’ve read the books you know the basic story line, anyway, and if you haven’t you don’t want me blowing the whole thing up. I will have to describe the action of the first movie, The Hunger Games, but I’ll keep it to just a necessary minimum.

I did try to read the books, got through the first two, sorta skimmed the third, and on the whole was not overwhelmed. The premise of the trilogy revolves around a post-apocalyptic North America (“Panem”) in the distant future, which suffers under a murderous tyranny centered on the opulent Capitol. All other districts of the nation of Panem exist to keep the Capitol in decadent luxury; to keep them cowed, an annual lottery selects two “tributes” from each district, to wit, one teenage boy and one teenage girl, who are then forced to fight to the death in a televised arena. The inspiration is both classical and modern, referring to the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur as well as reality TV programming.

In the first movie, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteered for the games to save her younger sister; she and the boy from her poor, coal-mining district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) manage to survive the murderous competition. In doing so, they create a problem for the despotic Capitol, represented by President Snow (played by a smoothly threatening and really scary Donald Sutherland)– the two of them, particularly Katniss, have become symbols of resistance for the districts, which are ready to blow. Snow’s solution is rig the next games so that previous victors of the games are recalled as tributes, which practically guarantees that Katniss will either be killed or discredited as a symbol.

In many ways the books left me wanting more– I didn’t think they created a very detailed or satisfying future world (they don’t talk about the state of the rest of the planet, and the Districts seem more archetypes than places where living and breathing people live). The film, with the advantages of presenting images, does much better in creating its world, making it look advanced, backward, workaday, and decadent all at once. It looks like a world descended from the one in which we live, but which has been through torments and horrors and which has been twisted into a different shape. It does a good job showing that this world has serious power and wealth differentials, but that the nature of tyranny has not changed over the centuries– but neither has human love and devotion.

The cast in general does a good job, but I want to call out Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, and Jena Malone as Johanna, an in-your-face victor, for special mention. Lawrence is the emotional center of the film, and she keeps us committed to her through all the considerable action. I’ve already mentioned Donald Sutherland, who is the epitome of the intelligent but cold despot clinging to power as the ground shifts beneath him. Jena Malone was a surprise and a delight as the tribute from District 7, who doesn’t mind letting people know how much she resents being dragged back into the games, and whose elevator strip-tease is a highlight (well, for me, anyway). I thought Ms. Malone looked awfully familiar, and I finally realized she played Lydia Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Now that’s range.

The action keeps you involved, and there is a nice twist at the end. However, the ending itself seems rather abrupt, which is about the only real issue I have with the picture. Catching Fire does an excellent job as a science fiction film creating a dystopian future, while making us care about the human beings caught up in the madness.

I give it five out of five mockingjays.

Looking over the crop of films coming out over the holidays, I am not sanguine that I will be seeing many of them. I will throw in one preemptive mini-review, though– The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is probably going to be as bloated and tedious as the first film. The first film was a major disappointment, and my expectations are low for the second and third. Might not even see them when they come out on DVD. There, I’ve gotten that out of the way.

Later.

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