By Armond White
Funny how The Hunger Games franchise pretends to deal with political demogoguery but really just gives audiences dumbed-down Bread-and-Circuses–the standard millennial trap. By the time Philip Seymour Hoffman enters The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with his usual post-Oscar smugness, viewers are so worn out from the brackish color and repetitive plot nonsense that no one in the audience I saw it with could even laugh upon hearing Hoffman’s character name, Plutarch Heavensbee—or maybe they were just dumbstuck. Once you enter the world of The Hunger Games, the pseudo-literary conceits, futuristic sci-fi and dystopian speculation are entirely witless. It’s glum, unenjoyable junk, not campy enough to laugh at.
This franchise illustrates how rotten contemporary filmmaking has gotten; the producers refuse to make the series better. They merely follow the degenerating pattern set by the interminable Lord of the Rings films where an overlong narrative sends its protagonist (Katniss Everdene played by Jennifer Lawrence) through a quasi-political demolition derby designed to divert the masses while submitting them to entertainment-cum-slavery. The games contestants fight each other yet never revolt against their impoverished, dictatorial circumstances. In Catching Fire, the filmmakers never employ an efficient narrative—like Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2008 Death Race which used a similar competitive premise but to spectacular effect.
As escapism, this is esthetically dreary and intellectually static. It avoids exploring the basic analogy to our contemporary victimization by media and politics—that new sci-fi state: not Oligarchy or Aristocracy but a media-run Mediocracy, to paraphrase Mike Judge’s brilliant Idiocracy. (For an artistic exploration of this theme see Chen Kaige’s upcoming Caught in the Web.) Hunger Games 2 represents such a blatant, unembarrassed, unimaginative marketing offensive that it repeats all the worst aspects of blockbuster mania (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Twilight) starting with giving the helm to a director incapable of providing momentum, excitement, seriousness, craft or beauty—in other words, who cannot direct.
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Francis Lawrence, a commercials and music-video pro, suits the cynical production; his ineptitude derives from the visual illiteracy of the TV/videogame industry whose audiences are so accustomed to banal sensationalism and incoherent form that they no longer know how to watch cinema. They’re as hopelessly gullible and unperceptive as the denizens of Katniss’ cat-piss, sub-classical dystopia—a combination of life-or-death tournaments, Truman Show-style media domination and dumb references to the grade school Lit assignments students didn’t read in Junior High. (When Katniss is attacked by birdlike creatures who mimic the voices of loved ones, these “Jabberjays” pointlessly copy and bowdlerize the sirens and Stymphalians of Greek mythology.) Director Lawrence achieves no “magical” effects to create a mood of visionary wonderment; the arbitrariness of poison fog and other impediments on Katniss’ obstacle course insult our intelligence. Her saga looks cheap, uninspired, like an episode of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead which makes the attempts at satirizing TV-game-show crudeness laughable—still, never funny. (Stanley Tucci’s performance as emcee Caesar Flickerman is especially awful. Worse than ever, Phony Tucci cannot satirize his own smarminess.)
Catching Fire is another step in the cinema’s destruction, making movies more like television. The “quality” cast doesn’t help. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are wasted and Hoffman looks like he’s cashing the check in his street clothes–a fitting contrast to the absurd costumes that make Katniss look princessy yet catatonic. Jennifer Lawrence’s athletic, healthy-girl beauty should make her an ideal heroine for a democratic adventure flick—the Nimrod scene where she shoots an arrow into the artificial heavens ought to wreck the Games the way Omarosa does various reality-TV shows. When Katniss and her eunuchy partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) travel on their Victory tour, a peon shouts “Tell us what you really think!” Yet Hunger Games 2 never empowers its audience. With this franchise, no thinking is allowed.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair