Full disclosure: We found a few tears streaming down our faces more than once, during the screening of Catching Fire
, the second installment in the YA phenomenon that is The Hunger Games
That fact in and of itself doesn't say a lot. The bar for tears during movies isn't all that high, for some of us. But, in this case, they were well earned. There is something very poignant about what this ostensibly teen movie is able to do, amidst its show of glitz and glamour and action.
Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate/Murray Close.
For the uninitiated, here's what you need to know. In a dystopian future, the government isolates and suppresses its people, to squelch any ideas of uprising. And, to further instill fear in the hearts of its citizens, that same government demands that each year, each district offer up two teens to fight to the death on reality TV, in a grand affair, publicized for the entertainment of the masses. That was the premise of the first novel/movie, as inspired by a cross-pollination of The Gladiator
and reality television (the author's words, not ours), and in the second, we find our heroine, having survived the Games and stirred up some dreaded seedlings of revolution, needing to tour the districts with her co-victor, looking oppression in the face, and appeasing the powers that be with handily written speeches that read like press releases. From there, our heroes find themselves drawn back into a second round of Hunger Games, and the action-movie half of the story begins. And of course, there is also a behind-the-scenes love triangle at play, here.
But, we're less concerned with those last two things than with the first half of the movie. Not because they're poorly done (in fact, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the visual effects — remember those weird dogs at the end of the first movie? — were much more convincing, and far less cheesy, this time around). Instead, it's because we found the first half of the movie to be much more compelling and powerful than expected — and we're pretty big fans of the novels.
Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate/Murray Close. Katniss' childhood sweetheart, en route to one of the aforementioned public whippings.
We're not talking Oscars here (although, Jennifer Lawrence really is
the best), but this is a smartly done look at injustice in the world. Does it manipulate your emotions with scenes involving public executions (of sympathetic older gentlemen, no less) and whippings? Yes. But, does it beat you over the head with its agenda? No. And, we appreciate that.
Sure, there are parallels between the excess of the Capitol's world and our own. And, it's easy to envision the slippery slope between civil wars breaking out across the globe and the oppressive leadership often being supported and installed by our own countries and the iron-fisted rule of Panem. But, we're left to imagine it rather than being told about it. And, we appreciate that level of restraint.
Quite possibly, the thing that grounds all of the emotionally charged scenes of the masses being mistreated is Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee. A seeming conspirator of the president, he helps plot Katniss' takedown, suggesting side-by-side campaigns — one claiming her as one of their own, lavishing attention on the details of her
Capitol wedding, and another featuring, well, public executions, whippings, raids, and generally shutting down food supplies and crushing spirits around the country. You can't help but sit in awe of his lighthearted presentation of nationwide devastation. The machinations of the Capitol come to life in his head gamemaker, and we're left wishing he could have more screen time.
That, coupled with the fact that this is a reasonably violent action movie that never condones violence (in fact, it calls it out, and also calls it into the spotlight in a very Lord Of The Flies
way), and we're happy to call this a win. For a box-office-crushing franchise, we expected much less nuance and feeling — and we were pleasantly surprised. But, what's ahead, we're not sure. The third book was our least favorite in the series, and the fact that it's being split into two films doesn't bode well. But, we're willing to be proven wrong....
Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate/Murray Close. Katniss, showing off her wedding dress, prior to being sent into the arena to fight to the death.