We’re Painted Red To Fit Right In

[Radioactive – Imagine Dragons]

This will be my review of Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games film series. Needless to say, this will be rife with spoilers, both plot- and theme-wise.

When I saw the first movie, the aptly titled The Hunger Games, I had just finished reading the entire trilogy within a week, so everything was fresh in my mind. It also meant that I was caught up in the whirlwind of comparing everything to the book, while still reliving the great feeling that I got from reading a dramatic and action-packed series.

Today, I saw the movie having not really come in contact with the fictional world at all for at least a year. I’ve had one night when I came across a trailer, and realizing that I forgot what that trailer was about, I went and had a small peek through the corresponding chapter of the book. But, for the most part, I was coming at the movie with a fresh eye. I mean, obviously I remember the major plot points and deaths, but I’d forgotten a lot of the small things.

Most importantly, I’d forgotten about the themes which Suzanne Collins was probably going for. So, instead of the usual review of a film on its visual and storytelling merits (which I will still do, albeit in a cursory manner), I’ll also talk a bit about the film’s success in drawing out the themes of the series. Note that I’ll be writing with the assumption that you know about the series, and so I’ll be minimally explaining the world.

First of all, I have to say, the film was extremely long. I didn’t exactly keep time, but it took what felt like at least 20 minutes before the ball drops – that Katniss has to go back into the arena. I suppose, though, that that particular ball wasn’t exactly dropping out of the blue, but say for argument’s sake that someone was going in without a single clue, and without having seen the previous film, nor the trailers, they would definitely be wondering if this film was going to go anywhere before they’re treated to the meat of the story. But, I guess that was to be expected, considering that Catching Fire is the transitory middle book/film, which was instrumental in moving the characters and their motives from the passive and oppressed Districts of the first book to the full-on, world-upending rebellion in the third. There is a lot of ground to cover for this – a lot of character development which had to happen to get the viewers up to emotional speed. I can’t remember well, but I’m sure they cut down on a lot of content, yet still had me leaving the theater with a sore bum from sitting for so long.

In Catching Fire, the results of Katniss’ actions in the first film became apparent. What she half intended to be a method or survival and half intended to be a middle-finger to the Capitol (more precisely, to President Snow), was interpreted as an act of rebellion, and encouraged everyone else to do so, too. The film was rather clear in portraying Katniss as a girl who was still stuck in the unwanted role in a publicity game that had become her life the moment she volunteered as Tribute. All she wanted to do in District 11 was to make people feel better, but it directly resulted in the execution of an old man. Katniss said it best when she cried that she didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt, but the fact was, someone did get hurt because of her. Her actions, her body, her life, was no longer her own. This is a theme that will continue even stronger in the next film(s). The film’s end alluded to this, but perhaps in a muffled manner – on the plane, or whatever it is, Katniss wakes up to see that Haymitch, Finnick (who at that point she wasn’t sure whether to trust) and Plutarch (who she definitely didn’t trust) were in cahoots. She was mortified that Haymitch betrayed her, only to be told that they’d all planned ABOUT her, WITHOUT her. This was somewhat overshadowed by the first realization that Katniss had also just lost Peeta, and then the secondary news that District 12 has been destroyed.

The idea that Katniss was no longer her own property seemed to have been a hit-and-miss in both movies, so far. The first movie, whether through time constraints or oversight, heavily omitted any explanation or clarification that the Games was a televised show. That, despite the grim and gory situation placed before her, Katniss was ultimately a contestant on screen, waiting for those watching her to love her and help her. In this movie, it became somewhat more detailed that everything she did, or had to do, was for the camera – that she was a symbol, not just a person. I think that Effie’s lines helped, always reminding Katniss that she had to smile, that she had to be in love, and that she had to convince people that it was all real. Katniss had a personal motive to pretend the love-story was real, but I think the film missed her intelligence in working everything out without having it spelled out to her, too.

And Peeta, let’s not forget that sweet boy who Katniss didn’t deserve. I suppose it’s too early for the film to really delve into it, but it is true that Katniss doesn’t deserve, nor in fact, want, Peeta. Katniss’ heart never went to him the way it went to Gale, but the fact was, Katniss needed Peeta, and ultimately (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) that trumps her heart. Perhaps it’s a comment that in war, what we want isn’t what we should have. Katniss ends up with someone who she needed – a boy who loved and cared for her, even when he (ANOTHER MAJOR SPOILER) lost his grasp on any other reality. You may say that Katniss settled, but that’s not the point – Katniss, at the end of Mockingjay, needed to settle into something safe. Gale would never provide that, but Peeta could, in abundance. Again, this is something which I expect them to delve into in the following two-part installments, but it was nice to see them lightly touch on the topic in this installment.

The idea of rebellion is an obvious theme in the films, yet the execution of such rebellion in different characters reached different levels of success. Putting side the overt riots in the Districts, I want to concentrate on the actions of two Capitol characters, Effie and Cinna.

Effie’s transformation from a self-centered publicity agent to a person who genuinely cared about Katniss and Peeta wasn’t aimed to be subtle. Elizabeth Banks did an excellent job during the reaping scene for the Quarter Quell – one has to realize that her character was in the midst of emotional turmoil; grieving, raging yet terrified (not for herself) at the same time, all while on camera – and in subsequent scenes. The way that she portrayed Effie really shone the character’s determination to let Katniss and Peeta know that she felt the indignation of the situation as strongly as they did, in her own little ways. Putting aside makeup, lighting, and camera angles (areas about which I’m not yet knowledgeable enough to comment), the writing of her character was simple, and the delivery succinct.

Cinna, on the other hand, disappointed me. The book Cinna was a crafty, intelligent and kind designer, whose pride and skill in his work outshone the tyranny of the reason for his creations. Katniss resisted and hated him at the start, only to be taught that Cinna did not do his job because he wanted to doll up the lambs for slaughter, but rather do anything he could to give them a fighting chance. Cinna wasn’t just some Capitol lapdog with a makeup brush in his hand – he was an artist who had his own ideas, his own feelings about the life that was being led around him. The Mockingjay wedding dress was the epitome of his artistry, his swan-song (if I may) of his thoughts. It was supposed to be an elegant, subtle and wildly dangerous message that Cinna sent in the best way he could. It was supposed to be a metaphor, for as the dress burned a bright beacon for the rebellion, so too did the dying embers signify the last remaining moments of Cinna’s life; as the snow white dress melted away, surely Cinna resigned himself to a painful doom. But the pain of that moment, when the camera fell on Cinna for his bow, was lost to me.

I feel that my problem was with the editing of this scene. The acting, the script and the camera was spot on, but the editing (or, I suppose, direction) drew attention away from the significance of the moment. Similarly, the sound editing drew significance away from a tragic irony later on in the film, upon Mags’ death. Not a few minutes before, Finnick said that the sound of the cannons was like music to his ears, because it meant one less person out there to kill him. But as the poison fog was rolling in, and Mags leaped into her death to save the others, the sound of her death cannon was drowned out by the music score and all the noise happening on screen. Then, with all the commotion happening later, one never really had the time to properly digest how horrifyingly ironic it was for Finnick to hear the cannon sound upon his mentor’s death. If anything, Finnick seemed more affected by the Jabberjay aftermath (which was a good subtle setup for later), telling Katniss almost indifferently that Mags was going to die, anyway. Perhaps I interpreted the scene wrongly, but his actions in caring about his elderly mentor should have suggested some more weight in his words when he dismissed Mags’ death.

(I want to take a separate moment to mention how great Mags was, especially in that short footage of her volunteering as tribute. When Finnick showed the smallest of weaknesses hugging Mags, she pointed fervently at the camera, reminding him that they were back under scrutiny – but more importantly, that his relief that Annie was saved was a danger to both himself and Annie. They’re the little things which I was grateful the writers had painstakingly put in.)

My take away of this review is that Catching Fire was rather temperamental when it came to its success in the portrayal of the themes. Where it triumphed in showing personal rebellion in Effie, it missed the mark with Cinna. Where it took note of the small tragedies and details of Finnick’s love for Annie, it neglected to do the same for his love for Mags.

Finally, and this is probably more nitpicking than anything: I hope for a better, more rounded portrayal of Prim and Gale for movies 3 and 4. Gale’s tendency for action and war was shown but not elaborated upon in this film, and the efforts to mature Prim to (EXTREME SPOILER ALERT) set her up to volunteer for and die as a medic in the final moments of the saga resulted in an overly aloof and distant girl. Obviously, this film was more of a focus on the gathering forces for a revolution, so little side-character developments aren’t of importance, but it would have been nice to see Prim act a little reckless as a foreshadowing of her seemingly forgetting Katniss’ first sacrifice.

(If you can’t tell, I’ve always viewed Prim as a supreme idiot by the time of her death. I mean, it was a beautiful stroke of irony on Collins’ part, but it made me so frustrated.)

When I have the time, I’m going to go back and re-read the books again. I think it would give me fresh perspectives on both the films and the books, and then maybe I can do a re-write of this review if I deem it necessary (which I know it never is, because no one reads these).

Alex.

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