After my first viewing of the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, I felt emotionally assaulted. For the majority of the film, your eyes and ears endure an onslaught of complex and vivid imagery and oftentimes grating sounds. I left feeling wary.As my friends and I walked to the car afterwards, we were silent. It seemed hard to scrape together the exact sentiment left by the movie. Was it intriguing? Certainly. Was it exhausting? Assuredly. It is, in the words of many a clichéd artist, “an emotional roller coaster.”
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens with our equally nervy but distinctly better prepared protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, one of the winners of the previous year’s Hunger Games—a competition pitching 24 random young adults from the 12 districts against each other and forcing them to fight to the death.
As Katniss crouches in the outskirts of District 12, she seems enraptured by something we cannot quite make out. The glossy facade of her interior remains intact throughout the film, an impermeable membrane which prevents both the audiences in the Capitol and theaters from becoming privy to her thought process. This is not to say that we do not witness her emotional experience of the games, because on the contrary the audience is inundated with close-up images of Katniss sobbing, screaming or exhibiting an “intense” look that we learn to associate with determination. However, the combination of the stilted dialogue which Katniss delivers and the multiple ways in which she is manipulated by the men around her often make it hard for the audience to discern how Katniss really feels.
As the complicated plot progresses, Katniss realizes the revolution of the districts against the Capitol has begun. Districts are turning on their oppressors and Katniss is recognized as the symbol of the rebellion. She is their “mockingjay,” the hero who the districts’ citizens have idolized because of her defiant behavior in the Games the previous year. She, however, does not want the title.
She fears the Peacekeepers who “keep the citizens in line,” wants desperately to keep her sister Prim and her mother away from President Snow (played with terrifying contempt by Donald Sutherland), and, at one point, attempts to make a break for it, explaining to Gale, “We’ll never be safe here.” What kind of a hero tries to run away? Gale insists she stay in her district, and ultimately she is sent back to the Quarter Quell Hunger Games to fight to the death once more.
While there is little debate that Katniss is a strong, moral character, it seems harder to label her behavior in this film as revolutionary. She is courageous to the point that she will throw herself in the line of fire to save a friend or family member, but she wants no part in the backlash against the Capitol.
Instead, she finds herself unwillingly proffered as the symbol of hope for a nation of suffering people and entirely unable to free herself from the revolution’s clutches.
What frightens me about The Hunger Games series, beyond, merely, the terrifying nature of the competition, is Katniss’ nature. The series, supposedly, features a female heroine, a protagonist for children to idolize. However, Katniss is remarkably unaware, especially in the second film.
The men around her are constantly manipulating her to meet their needs and wants, and although she might struggle against their demands, she ultimately fulfills them. Why can’t the protagonist be in on the game? Why can’t she be calling the shots and controlling her own destiny? Within the diegesis of the film, Katniss often seems to be the pawn.
Reflecting on Catching Fire after a second viewing, the narrative seems less of a human story. The scale is simply too big. Katniss is not fighting President Snow or the other Victors in the arena; she is fighting “authority.” The impact of the film is, at times, reduced because of its inability to supersede the themes driving the narrative. The people in the districts must be oppressed, in order to revolt. Katniss must be forced to hunt to eat, or she could not succeed at the Games. It is a necessary cycle for the narrative, but can sometimes feel too heavy or “preachy.”
The story has a few light moments to lessen the high-stakes Quarter Quell and to relieve the anxiety driven by Peace Keeper attacks and surprise visits from President Snow. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) is delightful every single moment he is on-screen. Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) is a new character in the series, a victor from a previous year. She is fantastic.
Angry, vulgar, opinionated, intelligent, brutal and strong, she seems a far superior heroine to Katniss who either yells or simpers, terrified, but so be it.
The movie fulfills its genre and matches the caliber of the previous film, and I certainly enjoyed it. The shaky cinematography of the first Hunger Games was reduced, and every aspect of the mise-en-scéne that could be amplified, was. Effie (Elizabeth Banks), in particular, looks even more fabulous in each scene than the last, but the vast expanses of the Hunger Games world are positively delectable. The movie, if anything else, is a fun viewing experience. The acting is rich, sometimes enhancing banal dialogue or driving scenes along more quickly. I am glad that I saw the film and remain (mainly) unembarrassed that I have seen it twice.
All the things that bothered me about the film are, unfortunately, telling of its genre and the industry, not its makers in particular. These shortcomings of the film have amped up my excitement to see the upcoming Maleficent (2014) to see Angeline Jolie portray the infamous villain of Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent’s character, I would argue, truly deserves idolization. The power, the horns! A villain worth rooting for.