Monday, July 22, 2024

The Hunger Games Catching Fire: You Know Nothing, President Snow

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Last week, I began watching The Hunger Games movies, a cultural phenomenon that I mostly had escaped. My impression of the first movie was that while there were intriguing elements, there too many holes and odd choices made in terms of narrative focus for me to understand the popularity (the popularity separate from the books, that is).

With Catching Fire, I think I do understand it. This was a good movie. It fleshed out the setting a lot more, which was desperately needed in the first film. Even better, Katniss became a far rounder character. She was still internal, yes, but they–I don’t know–let her emote more? Gave us more intimate scenes that allowed her to express herself? Whatever the change was, it worked. Add to that Philip Seymour Hoffman, and you have yourself a goddamn movie!

And yet… I enjoyed it less. I’m actually not sure what’s wrong with me, because I spent the entire time fully aware that I was watching a better film.

It could be a couple of things. For one, I never exactly hid from Hunger Games spoilers, so I did know two things going in: 1.) Philip Seymour Hoffman was a secret revolutionary, and 2.) there was going to be another hunger games and Katniss and Peeta were going to be in it again.

I’ll hit on the second point first, because I actually think my understanding of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character (good gods, I’m already sick of typing this…’PSH’ okay?) only heightened my watching experience. Knowing there was another game coming up, however, did not help matters. I really enjoyed the tensions set up in the first hour, don’t get me wrong. I loved President Snow’s visit to Katniss’s house and his threats. I found what happened in District 11 in response to Katniss’s eulogy for Rue to be incredibly effective (and it actually made me feel like this was a dystopian government! Score!), and I could have watched an entire movie of that Capital party with Snow’s ominous toasts and PSH’s veiled remarks.

However, I knew how it would end up; I knew what Snow’s solution was going to be to put Katniss “in her place.” Worse still, I knew that the game was going to take at least an hour, because I just don’t see how something of the kind could take any less. For that reason, I was painfully aware of the runtime of this movie. It really felt as though it took far too long to get to the “actual plot” of the movie. Which is weird of me to say…I’m all for long set-up where tensions get to stew. But I guess it was just that I was so totally unenthused to see the games again, so it felt like there’d be no decent payoff.

And frankly, I think that was a feeling that came to fruition. Despite the tensions being pretty well-seeded, the jump from Katniss and Peeta announcing their sham marriage, which was basically them resigning themselves to a completely non-revolutionary life because that’s how desperate they were to keep the peace, to Snow suddenly deciding to torch a factory (why did they do that again?) and drag randos off in District 12 felt a bit unearned. I mean yes, PSH was manipulating him, but the fact is, Snow had Katniss where he wanted her, and he pissed that away because his granddaughter wore her hair in a braid.

Which I’m sure was supposed to be commentary in and of itself. That this is the personality who would lead such a government; that such a society is inherently unsustainable. Snow is living proof that hope is more powerful than fear. Or at the least, his fear of hope led to his undoing. That’s a powerful message, but somehow the way in which it was presented left me feeling more frustrated with the President for being so unbelievably shitty at his job. I would be so much better at oppressing the masses than him.

Case and point, yeah, Katniss then gets downright pissed about what’s going on in her district, because why wouldn’t she, so he suddenly has to put her back in her place. And how does he do that? By taking the most popular goddamn public figures and forcing them to kill each other. That’ll keep the people down and totally not cause any riots.

And yes, PSH was manipulating him there too. I know that. I was happy to know that going into the movie, because boy does the brilliance of that actor shine through when you understand what game he’s actually playing. However, what he managed to convince Snow of felt a little too similar to the “Palpatine manipulated everyone” honeypot of the Star Wars prequels. Like, I’m really thrilled PSH’s Batman’s Gambit worked out for him; he’s got sympathetic aims and all. But when the main antagonist just starts acting rather stoopid after not being previously presented in this way at all, it shatters a little bit of the effect that I think it was supposed to have. Maybe I just projected too much onto Snow last movie or something. Or in the first few scenes of this film where he seemed like somewhat qualified fascist.

Honestly, how did Snow think this would play out? That the districts would see their beloved champions dead, and think, “oh no…really can’t fuck with Panem now!” What about the citizens of the Capital, who were so clearly against this? And I’m sorry, but Peeta’s “baby bomb” would have totally worked. 100%. For fuck’s sake, Caesar, one of the most recognizable and influential voices in Panem, was an unabashed Katniss-stan, and it was clear the crowd was behind him.

It is as if Snow read “How to Start a Revolution 101.” But maybe he thought this random volunteer for gamemaker (that’s not suspicious at all) was that qualified to properly assess the situation? It was amateur hour. Seriously, give me a dystopian society to manage.

It was frustrating, because it was hard to explain these character actions with anything but “they needed the second hunger games to happen, so it did.” Rehashing the same narrative device is already a little bit of a questionable call, but if it’s going to be done, it should at least be done in a way that feels organic.

Then the game themselves mostly left me cold. I’m sure half the point is that we’re supposed to feel so frustrated at the fact that Katniss and Peeta were getting dragged back into this damn thing. If that’s so, it was effective. But it also felt a bit “I don’t know what to do, so let’s just use the framework of the first chapter again.” At least it blew it up at the end.

One reason I found the 75th game to be rather uneffective was that there was the “fireballs flung at Katniss’s face” effect again, only amplified. That is, it was the environmental factors, clearly caused by the powers-that-be, which were the biggest threats. As I said last week, isn’t this the best way to incite your oppressed masses? Which yeah, PSH was trying to do. But he was also trying to keep Katniss alive, and yet she came *this* close to dying multiple times. Why was he mad when the people he was secretly helping figured out the clock? Did he think Snow would realize something was up? As far as I could tell, Snow was pulling a Viceroy Gunray and essentially telling PSH “shoot her, or something.” Because he took his stoopid pills.

I do, and he’s a patsy. That’s the problem.

And while there was a part of me that was intellectually curious about what new horrors were to be found in this game as opposed to the other, it really just felt like a painful repeat. The careers are dicks, again. Look, that one has sharpened teeth. Here’s perfectly innocent people who ally with Katniss, only to get killed. I just watched this.

I don’t mean to say that nothing about the 75th game worked. For one, it was goddamn powerful how it started out: with Cinna getting beaten and dragged away once Katniss was in the tubes, and then us following her through that horrific and disorienting event into the arena where she suddenly has to focus for her life. Well done. It got me emotional.

Secondly, Katniss’s skepticism towards the other victors who were trying to help her was effective, because you see how this was kind of shaking her “survival survival survival” mindset. It didn’t make sense to her that one of the morphlings would protect Peeta. You could see the confusion in her eyes as Johanna helped fake her death to keep her safe. Then even the way Peeta seemed to be prodding her to trust the others to the point where it just bordered on suspicion; all very good.

That being said, Finnick’s character lost me a bit. I’m assuming he’ll get fleshed out in the next movie a lot more, but I’m not sure I could describe his personality. Slightly cocky with a heart of gold? I got way more of a sense of Johanna, despite her limited screentime.

But if we’re speaking of characters, let’s talk about what really worked for this movie, and that was Katniss. She felt so much rounder, which is why I will call this movie “better” than its predecessor. I may have enjoyed it less, but it was good. They explored Katniss’s PTSD and really demonstrated how being a victor was far from empowering for her. My favorite moment was Peeta’s casual “I get them too” remark about her nightmares. What’s more is they seemed to… I don’t know how to say this. Write more lines for her? The first movie was very, “why have her say anything?” Here, she would actually respond to people! Maybe it’s just that she was more comfortable with those around her to voice her opinion? They didn’t suddenly make her a bubbly extrovert, but I do feel that she at least let us know what was going on beneath the surface.

Even the other characters came together a bit more. I have to wonder at what point Haymitch teamed up with PSH, but it was totally reasonable that this event would push him there. Effie was absolutely everything, with her “we have to show them they’re a team and all wear gold because I have no other way to express my dissatisfaction!” It was endearing. I’m quite confused about when Prim randomly pro’d out, but I’m not complaining. Really, the only character I have a complaint about was President Snow.

You’ll notice two names are conspicuously absent from that paragraph. And I’m sorry, but we have to talk about the love triangle, which really did take up a good amount of screentime. I don’t like love triangles, precious. I particularly didn’t this one, because within the first ten minutes of the movie, both Gale and Peeta were trying to shame or guilt Katniss for not being into them. This was the romantic starting point.

Let’s talk about Gale first. He kissed her, and she seemed completely nonplussed. In their later scenes, when she demonstrated interest back, it felt stiff to me. I’m not sure if it was supposed to, but I got the strong impression that the physical element was more what she perceived to be his needs than her own. It could be a misreading of her character, I’ll grant you that. Either way, I didn’t like how he held her method of survival against her, and I just can’t see anyone being on board with that dynamic. Except…maybe Katniss shipped it? She did seem to genuinely want Gale in some capacity, so that matters. However, I was personally struggling to see if/why that capacity was necessarily romantic; I don’t think the narrative required it.

The Peeta relationship was…slightly more romantic? Ish? It certainly didn’t begin that way; he was outright pissed off that Katniss had only been acting in love with him. You know…to fucking save their lives. His “almost thought that kiss was real” was incredibly dickish. The good news, however, is that he seemed to have basic self-awareness, which was evident when he told her that he just wanted to try and be friends. But even that, he framed as her fault:

“So if you can stop looking at me like I’m wounded, then I can quit acting like it.”

Um asswipe, you weren’t acting wounded. You were acting entitled and passive-aggressive.

However, they did do a good job of developing that friendship. We see how Katniss can relate to Peeta unlike anyone else, and how she increasingly comes to rely on him. He’s her rock, or poultice or something. It’s endearing in that way. And then at some point she has the realization that this is what she wants in a partner. She doesn’t want Gale’s fire, she wants mud. Fire only consumes, where mud nourishes. This makes sense for who Katniss is; she doesn’t want to be a revolutionary (though it’s forced on her); she wants to survive and protect the people that she loves.

Unfortunately, I just can’t get on board with this. It is too much the Dogged Nice Guy, and that leaves me dry every time. There was also something very ameteur about how the romantic element of this movie was smashed in our faces from the start. “You must convince everyone you’re in love with Peeta, or else I will bomb your district into oblivion!” Really Snow? This is the best you can come up with? Not like, “you must read this propaganda about how great Panem is” or anything? But maybe that’s just the problem with Snow’s character leaking over.

I will say even though I didn’t find it romantic, I found Katniss and Peeta’s relationship to be quite good and compelling. They’re both have character arcs, and the way they can uniquely understand one another’s trauma and support each other was something I’m glad they spent time exploring.

All in all, it was a solid film that was a victim of tired frameworks–those being the games and the love triangle. Even though I was looking at the clock a good deal, the ending excited me, as it blew up both of those things. I actually am quite hopeful for the next film, especially if it continues the trend of giving Katniss’s character more consideration and time to shine.

All images courtesy of Lions Gate Entertainment 

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