The odds are never with us
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a rare Hollywood movie, writes, in which radical and even revolutionary themes play a central role.
IN A country capable of producing enormous riches, the vast majority of the population slaves away at dangerous, mind-numbing jobs for poverty wages, pitted against each other in life-or-death competition. Meanwhile, most of the wealth they produce goes to enrich a tiny minority that lives in unimaginable luxury and leisure, producing nothing and relying on high-tech surveillance and brutal police repression to keep the whole system in place.
I'm talking about Panem, the future-U.S. in which the Hunger Games series takes place. But in a real-life U.S. where the top 1 Percent controls 40 percent of the wealth, it's easy to feel like the dystopian vision of Suzanne Collins' young adult novels and their associated films is not that far from our own reality.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the film franchise, opened November 21 and has already earned an estimated $220 million in the U.S. The first installment of the trilogy grossed over $400 million in the U.S., outpacing every installment in the Harry Potter and Twilight series, and proving to be one of the most profitable non-3D blockbusters of all time.
In a sure sign of distributor Lionsgate's increasing confidence in the Hunger Games brand, the film arrives with a number of ludicrous product tie-ins, from makeup to chocolate to sandwiches, all conceived by marketing execs who clearly didn't pay an iota of attention to the film's content. But for those of us in the districts, it's easy to see why the appeal of these films stretches beyond a bar of beef-jerky-flavored chocolate.
PANEM, THE dystopian world of the Hunger Games, is ruled by the Capitol--a sleek, high-tech metropolis built on wealth produced in the 12 surrounding districts, each set up around a single-industry extraction economy in which the vast majority of the population labors in poverty. As collective punishment for a rebellion now 75 years in the past, each district must send two of its teenagers as "tributes" every year to compete in a battle-royale fight to death, broadcast to the whole country as a reality-TV-style competition.
The world of Panem is a mish-mash of the old (colonial and slave economies; Roman gladiator games) with the new (reality TV; combined and uneven development; a preponderance of walls, internal movement controls and surveillance that would impress the architects of Israeli apartheid). The most basic, overriding feature of the world is its naked class inequality--a feature that is constantly reinforced as we travel from the districts to the Capitol and back with our heroine, the aggressively un-girly Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
In the first installment of the trilogy, 16-year-old Katniss volunteers to replace her 12-year-old sister in the Hunger Games arena, where she faces the prospect of killing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy from her district who she learns is madly in love with her. But Katniss and Peeta break the rules of the game, vowing to die together before they'll kill each other. Katniss also forms an alliance with Rue, a young girl from a neighboring district who reminds her of her little sister.
These instinctual assertions of humanity and solidarity--broadcast to all of Panem--turn Katniss into an unwitting symbol of resistance. The Games, intended to be a source of fear for the districts, become a source of hope. As Catching Fire begins, we learn that Katniss' acts of resistance in the Games were the spark that has lit the fire of revolution in Panem.
As Katniss and Peeta travel through the districts on the macabre Capitol-organized Victory Tour, they witness the growing rebellion. At home in District 12, police repression increases. Finally, unable to quell the rebellion, Panem's President Snow announces a change to the rules for the 75th Hunger Games--the competitors will be selected from among the existing Victors. Katniss and Peeta, already traumatized from surviving the previous year's Games, will be going back into the arena.
The first film was filled with memorable, often heartbreaking, acts of resistance against the Capitol--usually small, individual and symbolic. In Catching Fire, the momentum shifts toward collective resistance. It's here that you feel the escalating back-and-forth between repression and resistance--"moves and countermoves," as one character describes it. For every act of resistance, the Capitol delivers an emotional and usually a physical beating. But a tipping point has been reached where state violence only inspires more resistance.
As Katinss and Peeta speed through a restive district in a heavily armored military vehicle, we catch a glimpse of a slogan graffitied on a wall: "The Odds are Never in Our Favor." It's a twist on the cynical tag line the Capitol spouts to kids who are about to fight each other to the death ("May the odds be ever in your favor").
It's also a reflection of the growing radicalization in Panem--the idea that no matter how hard we may individually fight to get ahead, the game is rigged so that only the rich ever win. Perhaps it's the game itself that's the problem.
Against this backdrop of state brutality, TV host Caesar Flickerman's reality-show antics look increasingly sick. The rising tide of revolution throws the Games' true purpose into high relief--they are not just a distraction to keep the districts pitted against each other, but a weapon of the Capitol against all who would dream of defying them.
But the growing rebellion also changes the landscape of the Games themselves, as tributes form alliances that require teamwork and self-sacrifice toward a goal greater than individual victory. In this context, Haymitch's command to Katniss to "remember who the real enemy is" becomes the de facto slogan of the film.
CATCHING FIRE benefits from a substantially larger budget than its predecessor, and all the technical and artistic elements of the film work flawlessly to support the story: amazing costumes, seamless special effects (check out the monkeys), solid performances (Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman have particular fun) and some jaw-dropping shots that look particularly spectacular in IMAX.
The sheer amount of plot to be covered in the film's two hour and fifteen minute running time means events rush past at a pace that may leave viewers who didn't read the books confused at times. But that's all the more reason to pick up the novels, which contain more detail and nuance than can be fit into most feature-length films.
Catching Fire is an example of how a film with a thoroughly radical message can sometimes squirt out of the Hollywood blockbuster machine when wrapped in a genre package. (Being based on highly profitable pre-existing content certainly helps.) Fantasy, sci-fi and horror have always been easy avenues for political allegory, but Catching Fire's call for revolution is particularly explicit and well-timed.
As other reviewers have noted, there is never any illusion in Panem that the system can be reformed or improved in any way that doesn't require a direct overthrow of the Capitol's power. While the Capitol's superior technology and capacity for violence are terrifying, the first and second books/films end with a ragtag band of district tributes finding a way to challenge the rules of the Games--not just once, but twice.
This makes the conclusion of the trilogy all the more disappointing. Folks who have read the books already know where I'm going with this. For the rest of the film's audience, let's just say that if you walk out of Catching Fire singing "The Internationale" and ready for a mass democratic-revolutionary uprising in Panem to conclude the trilogy, you have a severe disappointment ahead of you.
A discussion of the trilogy's third part, Mockingjay (which, per the trend, will be split into two films released in 2014 and 2015) is beyond the scope of this review. Suffice to say that fans would probably best be served by lowering their expectations now. Better yet, just enjoy Catching Fire for what it is: a great film that shows the radical potential of ordinary people to organize and fight back collectively even against a seemingly all-powerful state.
First published at Red Wedge Magazine.