Tuesday, 10 December 2013

I was apprehensive when I saw the first Hunger Games film. I didn’t know what to expect, and one of the many things I’d heard about it was “it’s the new Twilight”. Thankfully, this turned out to be bollocks – Hollywood were looking to make as much from the teenage market as they’d done with Twilight, yes, but it was so much more than that. The other comparison I'd heard over and over again was to Battle Royale, often in a very sniffy manner implying that Hunger Games had ‘copied’ the Japanese classic and so lacked originality. Again, it was so much more than that. Yes, it featured young people being placed in a confined environment and forced to fight to the death, but the unique characters, futuristic setting and satire of reality TV were among the elements that made it stand out.

The second film, Catching Fire, moves the story on, with Katniss Everdeen forced back into the Hunger Games as the powers that be work out how to deal with her increasing fame and what this represents for the growing buds of revolution. The Hunger Games pointed its sharp satirical finger at the horrors of reality TV, and Catching Fire turns this into an exploration of the cult of celebrity, with the establishment trying to use figureheads like Katniss to control the populace, and the populace appropriating them as symbols for themselves. As Catching Fire begins, Katniss is putting on the public show of being in love with Josh Hutcherson's Peeta - an unwilling part of the Capitol's propaganda war. When the populace won't take this any more, however, and violent control has to be asserted, she's on the side of the Districts, and the film does a great world-building job in contrasting the bourgeoisie pomposity of the Capitol with the oppressed slums of the Districts, and in exploring what Katniss can represent to each community. Pretty deep for science fiction aimed at a teenage audience, eh?

The one big thing which the Hunger Games series has that comparable films lack, and indeed is very hard to find in Hollywood cinema, is a strong central heroine. If I referred to any other Hollywood female as 'well-rounded', I'd have to be talking about her boobs, but with Katniss, I'd be talking about her character (not that there's anything wrong with Jennifer Lawrence's boobs). Lawrence's Katniss is a perfect action hero – resourceful and agile, vulnerable but determined to survive, facing impossible odds but committed to making a difference. Yes, there’s a love triangle, and that’s a point of comparison with the dreaded T-word, but if anyone, it’s the men in this triangle who do the moping and Katniss sees it as secondary to her struggles to fight for the people. It’s so good to see this subversion of gender conventions create a great female role model in mainstream cinema.

Speaking of that love triangle, I do feel that neither Josh Hutcherson nor Liam Hemsworth come close to matching up to Lawrence in terms of acting ability. But hey, I don’t go for hunky guys, and they’ll get the stereotypical teenage girls into cinemas… At least the supporting cast has some pretty reliable names, including Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, who has the most hypnotically shiny teeth. No wonder the people of the Capitol can't get enough of that shit; I'd happily sit through any show he presented and just stare at the teeth, wandering my gaze over the equally glitzy jacket if I needed a momentary break. Get him on The One Show.

Philip Seymour Hoffman also joins the cast for the second instalment, though his clothes and teeth are both notably less shiny, as is his performance - he's strangely understated as Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, as if he was hoping for a break in between demanding Paul Thomas Anderson films, had entirely forgotten he had to turn up to The Hunger Games, and nearly slept through his alarm. Hopefully Plutarch will come into his own when we go deeper into the character in the next films.

If I had one big complaint about the first film, it was the shaky camerawork. I do like shakycam when it’s used well (Greengrass' Bourne films, for example), but not when used with overzealous shakiness and no real motivation, and in The Hunger Games it felt very distracting from the story. Luckily, new director Francis Lawrence appears to have brought an Allen key to set and tightened the loose bolt on the steadicam, as the shakiness is a lot less problematic in Catching Fire.

There are a few weaknesses in the direction. Though there’s a great sense of jeopardy throughout, a few of the more CGI-reliant action sequences, including an attack from evil fog and a horde of monkeys, feel confusingly choreographed, unclear as to who's trying to do what and who just saved who. “You think she sacrificed herself to save you?”, Katniss asks Peeta regarding a fellow warrior killed in the monkey imbroglio. Katniss doesn’t know what happened in that fight, and nor did I.

Luckily, there are enough action scenes that do work, and they’re balanced well with the more emotional stuff – well enough, in fact, for me to have no problem with the 146 minute running time. One possible criticism is that Catching Fire overall is structurally quite unbalanced, setting up a lot of plot but resolving little. This isn't too much of a problem if you look at it as very much a ‘middle of the trilogy’ film, like The Empire Strikes Back – you really have to have seen the first film to know what’s going on, and it has an ending which left me anxious to see the next. I am a little bit worried that with Mockingjay, the series will follow the Hollywood trend of making the final book into two films – just how long it can be stretched out for without becoming too much is yet to be seen. 

Nevertheless, if the series can keep up the quality of Catching Fire, I’m all in. It’s an exciting science fiction thriller. It’s full of intelligent and relevant satire. It has a strong female protagonist. Young audiences love it. There’s nothing else out there that combines all these qualities, and in that respect, The Hunger Games are well worth celebrating.


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