The Hunger Games: Catching Fireby Kavish Chetty / 22.11.2013
The Hunger Games takes place in a superbly-conjured dystopian future-America, although one in which the historical traces of own our world are thoroughly obliterated. Histories of real slavery and inequalities are erased, and a sci-fi tabula rasa, an ideological construct that is truly unanchored from real-world urgencies, becomes its imaginative playground. You are seduced to wonder how our species could have been so disciplined by Empire, so pacified into slavish oblivion; or what unfathomably bleak historical processes could have led to this unequal universe: one in which the Capitol, a ravening metropolitan core which absorbs the resources of its enthralled and famished peripheries (the “districts”), demands that its subject-peoples relinquish, yearly, child-tributes to fight to the death in a much-adored gladiatorial spectacle. In this sense, pushing to the limit such themes as the decadence of Empire, the morbid absurdity of reality television (see The Running Man) and the rise of simulacra and mystification, Catching Fire may act as another form of cinematic therapy, a cathartic splurge of ahistorical fantasy to dis-remind us of the extents to which our own world may converge upon this one: our fortressed suburbia, comfortable proximity to suffering, and the image-sedation of our narcotic digital lives; or expanding ourselves to the theatre of geopolitics, a planet in which the “first-world” has managed its dysfunctions by exporting colonialism, apartheid, structural adjustments, puppet dictatorships and civil wars to the restless territories of the earth.
Catching Fire – anticipated lapses in political imagination aside – is a splendid sequel to the less-impressive Hunger Games, commanding itself with grim aesthetic splendour (architectural masterpieces, the regalia of a dread fascism; a sartorial sense that takes the extremism of haute couture to its vertiginous end-point), and at moments, genuine tension and slow thrill. The story picks up shortly after the original, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) gearing up for a Capitol-wide victory tour after their historic mutual triumph at the last Games, where they used a forged romance to get out of annihilating one another. However, this romantic gesture, far from being interpreted by the districts as a mere “love conquers the thirst to kill; to the loins belong salvation”, has become a symbol of resistance, and a gradual wave of anti-Capitol defiance begins to animate the wretched of the districts. Of course, this kind of anticolonial fervor cannot be allowed to threaten the Capitol’s lusts for domination, and here enters President Snow (Donald Sutherland, in an excellent performance complete with raspy-glass voice): first, forming an uneasy working-relation with Katniss, threatening to kill her family if she doesn’t help placate the incipient rebellion; and secondly, conspiring with mysterious new Games-designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, with understated malignancy), to end the threat as stealthily as possible.
Their master-plan is to inaugurate this year’s 75th annual Hunger Games as the “Quarter Quel”, bringing together past victors in an ultimate bloodbath – in which they hope Katniss and Peeta will be slaughtered by their very capable competitors. The main segment of the film, after the aborted victory tour, takes us back to the Capital training grounds, where the two protagonists – along with their alcoholic-charismatic sensei Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and their terrifyingly overdressed chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) – are put through the usual media circus, and meet their unique foes. All of this is prologue, however, until the actual battle royale, a thrillingly-executed third-act of frayed alliances, nervous set-pieces and very capable action. I will, relinquish nothing of the sub-political dynamics and intrigues that are actually at work, which give the later moments of the film the indeterminate air that all is not being revealed.
But in the mean-time, the film is acted out quite engagingly: by turns pop-melancholic, and not with its resignations to the expected – trembled lip and maudlin downturn of mouth – there are still some star performances by Sutherland and Hoffman, and Stanley Tucci playing the tan-face/white-teeth/blonde-pony abomination of broadcast host Caesar Flickerman (basically a male Giuliana Rancic, and as cosmetically ridiculous) is satirically-flexed and very amusing. But some of the most interesting designs belong to the idiosyncratic past victors: Finnick Odair is sculptured enviably with his impossible and imperious attitude; Beetee and Wiress play out their skills at the fringe of genius and lunacy; and the resentful Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) is full of dark charisma – an erotic scene in a gilt-and-glass elevator is sure to occupy the most moistened of dreams for several nights in sequence.
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of novels was written for a young adult audience and, as such, a certain flattening of political complexity is basically to be expected. I imagine the film will divide its politically-aware audience into the cautiously thrilled and the absolutely indifferent. To my mind, though, it’s the most enjoyable of the contemporary glut of sci-fi movies (Oblivion, Elysium and Ender’s Game, review forthcoming), carrying itself with strong performances, tight set-pieces, minor political ambiguities, and an imaginative cast of superhero-like characters: all the makings of an excellently entertaining blockbuster, provided you can forgive its malnourished vision of history.