I am perplexed by The Hunger Games and not in a way that I find enjoyable. There are three ways a perplexing movie can go: It can lead to intrigue, which is the best way; it can lead to bemusement, which has its perks; and it can lead to frustration, which is the case for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), which as a movie is serviceable, but as a story is built on sand that is not only shifting but just sort of dumb sand to begin with.
Catching Fire is the sequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games, which starred Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the arrow-shooting ingenue who fought her way through a terrible, government-sponsored, publicly televised battle royale in which 24 young people from the 12 districts of this dystopian future kill each other until there is one left (or two left in the last movie’s case). Although as a champion of this ordeal Katniss is supposed to be spared from competing again, the plot of Catching Fire drags her back into the arena for a second dip. The rules of this society are pretty much made up on the spot by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and he is a bit of an idiot and is the epitome of the malaise of the whole movie.
See, the film fails to clearly define its world. The best I can surmise from my memory of the first movie is that the nation presented here is split up into the 12 districts, with each one assigned a different bailiwick in service of the Capitol, which is the ruling district where all the swells of society live. This caste system is pretty rigid and as you get lower in the districts, the poorer and more terrible your lot is. So where District 1 looks like Manhattan, District 12, where Katniss is from, looks like Gary, Indiana, crossed with Chernobyl. Something bad happened in District 13, which apparently rose up against the Capitol but was then put down by it with extreme prejudice and people don’t go there anymore, which, I guess, makes it like Cleveland. It was actually out of the District 13 revolution that the battle royale, the Hunger Games as they are called, was born as a way to keep the districts in line and ward against further insurrection. President Snow is exceptionally preoccupied with the lower districts, the ones he deems threatening to his and his wealthy friend’s lush way of life. The problem is that the movie makes this preoccupation look completely ridiculous.
Katniss and her kin are “threats,” and she and the others in her district must be pitilessly oppressed, except there doesn’t appear to be enough of them. The richer districts appeared to be peopled with throngs of well-fed strong citizens numbering in the millions; the lower ones seem to have only a dozen emaciated weaklings who can’t defend themselves. It seems awfully strange that so much thought and manpower are wasted (District 12 is often raided by as many stormtroopers as it appears to have citizens) on these pitiful nobodies.
Further, the Hunger Games, as a revolution suppressant, baffle me. I’m no Che, but it seems to me that if I wanted to incite a national uprising, the first thing I would do is force two young people from every area to kill each other for no good reason on television. As I was searching for some kind of purpose to the madness, I thought that perhaps the whole thing is a pacifist parable, asserting that, grimly, we do, in fact, sit idly by while the government takes our young, enlists them, has them pointlessly killed (in the point of view of the parable I’ve attributed to the story), and we do watch some of it unfold on television. I don’t think that’s what’s going on, but it was the best I could come up with.
This is distressing because the movie has any number of high points. Lawrence is a steely action hero; she drives the story on with aplomb—the problem is that she’s driving a story with a couple of flat tires and a transmission issue. The movie is great to look at, features magnificent costumes (Elizabeth Banks as a smarmy functionary is always done up in the most creative and fascinating ways, and I would have liked the whole movie, which takes itself very seriously, to be as refreshingly gaudy and over-the-top as she is), and it does have some exhilarating sequences, none better than a fight between humans and baboons that is, dare I say, the finest fight between humans and baboons I’ve ever seen in a movie. However, none of this amounts to much if you can’t be convinced that the premise is credible. If I’m spending all my time counting the ways in which people don’t act like competent humans, I can hardly get carried away by the visuals.
I just, I can’t understand the motivation of this Snow joker. I’m constantly befuddled by the things he chooses to do. The Hunger Games are designed to scare the people into line, right? But they, based on the pre-Games interviews of the participants, are universally unpopular and nearly all of the participants beg for their discontinuance. Even the point of televising the Games is to let the viewers get to know, get attached to, and get behind each contestant, contestants that have less than a 5% chance of making it out alive. If a society is on the brink of revolution, wouldn’t killing off their favorite citizens be a bad idea? You’re basically taking regular people and making them walking billboards for insurrection—Snow, get it together. You don’t keep people in line by giving them an innocent representative then effectively sentencing them to death for no reason; that’s counterproductive, especially if you have PR people working nonstop to make these people sympathetic. I just don’t get it.
Furthermore, why does the wealth disparity between the richest and poorest districts have to be so large? These District 12 yahoos don’t have anything. This is designed to engender the audience’s sympathy but it’s so blatant that it almost does the opposite. Hey, instead of ritualistically slaughtering two of their citizens annually, why not try mollifying them with a little bit of money now and then? Hell, just the eye-liner budget on Catching Fire could have bought everybody in District 12 a moped. Better yet, Snow, how about you be the president who cancels the Hunger Games for good, which is, you know, what everybody wants, and use some of the money it must have taken to erect this elaborate rebellion-factory that you call good TV to build a park in District 12? Or you could put an IKEA there or something. You would be amazed how the urge to rise against your oppressors is lowered when people have access to affordable furniture.
I’m going to give Suzanne Collins, the author and creator of the best-selling Hunger Games novels, the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure that these little nagging issues, which nagged me right out of enjoying the movie, are addressed and made sense of in the books. But the movie should not be a companion-piece to the books; it has to stand on its own. It doesn’t have a leg to stand on.