“Catching Fire” picks up where “The Hunger Games” left off. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home to District 12, triumphant but troubled. The pair’s impromptu final act of defiance at the 74th Annual Hunger games – their decision to commit double suicide by poison berry (berry kari?) – has seeded rebellion against the Capitol across the districts.
Meanwhile, Katniss has boy probs: Peeta feels played because his true-love Katniss was apparently acting for the cameras to save their lives during the last games. And her jealous hometown soul-mate Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) isn’t so sure it was an act.
But that’s nothing compared to the Girl on Fire’s problems with the big boy himself: the bloodless President Snow (a consistently malevolent Donald Sutherland). On the eve of Katniss’ and Peeta’s victory tour of the districts, Snow unexpectedly visits Katniss’ home to threaten her, her family, her district, her true love and her kinda love.
Rebellion is brewing across the Districts and she has become a symbol of that movement, embodied by the Mockingjay.
And, then, when the victory tour begins, and rebellion starts to bubble, Snow and newly appointed Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have a brainstorm. To celebrate the 75th Annual Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, they decide to recall past victors to the field. (That’s so unfair!)
Yes, every time I try to get out they pull me back, Mr. Corleone, and that includes Katniss and Peeta. It’s a classic historical move that was already old in the time of the Magna Carta: when the leader feels threatened, he finds a way to eliminate all viable competition.
The sequel, which I saw in IMAX 3D, is quality stuff, a great package And for those who retained their skepticism during the first film, this may even appear to be a better one.
I’m not in that camp. I loved the last film. I trusted in Lawrence from the very first shot. She continues to pull the camera towards her, a born leading lady. Hutcherson, Hemsworth and Harrelson all pull their weight. In short, it’s good to see the familiar gang all back and in fine form.
The supporting cast has begun to fill out like a Harry Potter sequel, with such great actors as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Hoffman, and Lynn Cohen getting sweet paychecks and embroidering the tapestry. Newbies Sam Claflin and Jena Malone meld right in.
Returning player Stanley Tucci as emcee Caesar Flickerman has perfected his manic laugh and, if possible, has even more eyeliner and mascara this time around. And there’s a soulfulness and panic visible under all those wigs in Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket that’s touching and terrifying. Oh, and Lenny Kravitz walks right in as Cinna, proving again that a good designer can be a girl’s best friend.
And, yet, while the movie itself is a triumph of entertainment, this time around I had misgivings. The series has become a victim of its own success. Like so many things, it’s become coopted by Hollywood, a rebel not without a cause, a money minter.
At one point before the Quarter Quell, Plutarch tells President Snow his media strategy: to paraphrase, we’ll show the people floggings, and then fashion, floggings, then fashion and we’ll keep the revolution at bay. I winced not because of the delivery, but the self-awareness of that line while watching “Catching Fire” with its shifts from couture to hard targets, distraction to violence.
[Related: A Mom’s Eye View of ‘The Hunger Games]
I cannot say this is an opinion that I formed watching the sequel. Nor is it one I had reading the Suzanne Collins novels. I consider those books the best contemporary YA series I’ve read in the quality of prose, plotting and girl power characterization.
It’s just that Plutarch’s phrase – and I’ll dig it out when I see the movie again with my fourteen-year-old daughter next weekend – was so absolutely self-aware and cynical. And it crystalized a feeling that’s been building for me in the long, global march from “The Hunger Games” to “Catching Fire.”
Most recently, on Global Fan Day, the headline became JLaw’s pixie cut. As the media, my media, admired or critiqued her every designer décolletage, front and back, as she walked the red carpet in Paris, Berlin, and London, I did a double-take. I felt Katniss longing to run into the forest and shoot her bow at a wild turkey to release the pent-up rage. We’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Watching the panorama of fabulous fashion on screen in “Catching Fire” – the wedding dress that turns into the Mockingjay is only one example. Or the lush make-up: Cinna’s gilded eyeliner, Trinket’s false eyelashes. I came to feel like I had become molded, not in Katniss’s rebellious image, but as a voyeur from the Capitol, feasting on the girl’s spice before feeding her to the other tributes at the Quarter Quell.
And, like those bulimic revelers, the scene made me a little nauseous.
And, then, of course, with Plutarch’s self-awareness, we cut to the flogging of Katniss’s true love Gale – an image that must echo “12 Years a Slave” if you’re at all awake. Rushing to protect the kneeling Gale with her body, Katniss takes a lash to the face, fortunately not losing an eye. The strategy of Master Gamemaker Plutarch unfolds – fashion, flogging, fashion, flogging. Eegad: could we have fallen prey again to the cliché of the opiate of the people?
When [spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the books] the movie ends abruptly, sequel ready, with the logo image of the Mockingjay bursting into flames, it’s meant to be a call to arms (and to more ticket sales). We are the rebels and our cause has finally burst into action.
Hmm. I’m feeling complicit not rebellious as the lights come up and when I walk into the lobby, a giant placard advertises the burning Mockingjay on the largest size keepsake soda cup, now available at the snack bar. Queasy again.
This is nothing new. And maybe I’m tilting at windmills. It’s just a measure of my love for the character of Katniss, a thorny teenager thrust into the role of Artemis, an uneasy girl-power heroine that still maintained underdog status when the first movie rolled out.
To quote Haymitch’s advice to Katniss as she entered the Quarter Quell, a warning that becomes a call to arms: “Remember Who the Real Enemy is.”