The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is filled with chilling moments, particularly in its first half before it has to fill the standard action blockbuster requirements. If I had to pick out a moment that shook me the most, however, it’s a nightmare Katniss has in the middle of her victory tour, about a kid coming up to her and saying she “inspired” her to volunteer to take part in the Games. It’s a scary moment in and of itself, and Jennifer Lawrence’s horror completely sells it, but what made it particularly stand out is how it relates to the real world context of these movies and how they’re being sold.
The first Hunger Games movie made a crapload of money, so now the franchise has naturally become a insane marketing machine. So now we get starving oppressed workers being used to shill sandwiches, cosmetic and fashion brands celebrating the vapidity and ignorance promoted by an oppressive dictatorship, and now, after a summer camp allowed kids to live out dreams of being in “Hunger Games”, there’s threats of a theme park where everyone can imagine living out dystopia and child-murder. I can’t tell how much of the marketing team at Lionsgate is being “ironic” and how much they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Maybe Truffaut’s theory about war films, that it’s impossible to effectively criticize war while showing it on film since war on film is by nature exciting, holds somewhat true here. The image of a girl with a bow and arrow is naturally appealing, so they ran with that without thinking about the disturbing context.
The nightmare scene in the movie is so effective because it shows the filmmakers (director Francis Lawrence, and the Oscar-winning screenwriting team of Slumdog Millionaire‘s Simon Beaufoy and Little Miss Sunshine‘s Michael Arndt) are aware of how wrong this marketing machine can be. In addition to all the commentary on class, government, and celebrity from the first movie, this sequel’s biggest concern is what it means to sell out. It’s filled with smart satirical details and thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s incredible acting, as well as memorable supporting turns by Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman among others, the danger is clearly felt. The first half of the movie seethes with a righteous anger that demands a revolution (some people who actually get the point Lionsgate doesn’t seem to be leading the call: http://oddsinourfavor.org/about).
Once the Quarter Quell begins, the movie’s not as strong as it is in its first half. Where Francis Lawrence’s steadier camerawork is generally appreciated over Gary Ross’s heavy shakey-cam, Ross’s style was useful for filming the Games themselves to get across the brutality within the limits of a PG-13 rating. There’s some good character moments in these Games, but they’re awfully bloodless, with a bit too much unthreatening CGI that could come from the Hunger Videogames. Many filmmakers have sidestepped Truffaut’s dilemma by focusing on the decidedly unthrilling consequences of violence as opposed to the thrill of violence itself, but because of the MPAA’s weird standards and the pressure to make a PG-13, we see a lot of shots fired but we don’t see the dead bodies Suzanne Collins described in the book. It’s weird, this is a movie that absolutely should be seen by teenagers but also absolutely would have been more effective with an R rating. I don’t know if the two-part Mockingjay film will go for the R, but without the artifice of the games and a real war storyline starting up, the consequences of violence should be felt stronger.