Friday, November 22, 2013
The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire
The first "Hunger Games" is a movie I recall not enjoying, but still feel some respect towards. In the year and a half since, I can't say its memory has particularly been sour: it was a movie with faults, but was sincere. Sincerity is really half the battle with any movie, and its definitely what separates "The Hunger Games" from soulless failures like "The Golden Compass". I know producers think they can just patch together a few ideas and Frankenstein them together to make a winning movie, but they must know: audiences can tell when a movie is being made by people who just don't care. A character's motivations should be the accomplishment of their goals, not the paycheck of their actors - you don't think we couldn't see the dollar signs in Robert Pattinson's eyes when he pretended to be in love with Kristin Stewart? And I don't mean in the movie, his acting was worse in real life.
Speaking of sham romances manufactured by the producers to create false fantasies in the eyes of fans, there's this movie. Jennifer Lawrence's Catnip Everclear has returned - though in "The Hunger Games 2" one character calls her "catnap" a few times, which is too close to my nickname. So from now on she will be called "Claptrap Jellybean". Claptrap Jellybean must again suffer through the savage reality show called 'the Hunger Games', battling for her survival in order to entertain the foppish 1% of this dystopian universe* and remind the Depression-era districts to get back to their slave-labor jobs and stop doing that annoying three-fingered salute of defiance. So the stakes are higher, the tension is growing, and basically "Hunger Games 2" expands its universe and plotline while thankfully correcting the worst mistakes of the original. Well, most of the mistakes, there's still that blackhole of a romance subplot.
But first: some nitpicking. Suzanne Collins must definitely have some talents as an artist, but her universe seems curiously illogical upon deeper thought. The upper class of this nation appear to have a must larger population than the poor all-American districts which they are oppressing. I'm not really sure how an extremely-advanced super city with at least millions in its population requires a small grey miner town to bring in coal all the time, and apparently no other resource. The districters do nothing but labor constantly to get petty resources like lumber, but where are the legions of metalworkers, pavers, servants, and other people who would be required to build, let alone maintain the Clown City? Who cooks? Who has to work as a body guard? Clearly not everybody can be a hedonistic prince feasting on brutal violence on TV and what appear to be plates full of tiny colorful hamburgers. Considering also that the Clown People can just create out of nowhere fleets of airships, all sorts of monsters, and entire domes full of specialized environments for the Hunger Games, what hope do the districters have of ever beating these guys? Remember: the Clowns can summon evil gas that causes huge boils and kills you in seconds, and the District people have bows and arrows. Maybe the books explain all this and the movie just glosses over the smaller details, and maybe I'm the Queen of China.
Then again, I'm basically wasting my time thinking that hard about this since 1) "Battle Royale" didn't really make too much sense either, and 2) this is just fantasy anyway, the internal logic of the universe doesn't really matter as long as Claptrap Jellybean and co. have something oppressive to defeat. Don't think like me: you will be paralyzed by logic, and eventually you find yourself living in a box on the street, ranting about how the Gravity Train in the "Total Recall" remake was a stupid, impossible idea.
The interesting fact of the plotting in "The Hunger Games 2" is that it manages to mostly cover up the same territory as the first one did: Claptrap Jellybean begins the film in her little mining district, still in a vague romance with Liam Hemsworth, but against must pretend to be in love with the rather boring Peeta Mellark (played by the rather boring Josh Hutcherson), and due to the cruel manipulations of fate, must again take part in the Hunger Games. But this time the tone is entirely different, its less about establishing this world and the characters, and more about seeing how the events of the first movie have really changed things. Major repercussions have comes thanks to the entirely fake Fairy Tale ending of "Hunger Games 1", since Claptrap and Peeta's survival has inspired hope in all of the downtrodden districts, who saw that not as a fantastic romance, but a defiant act of political rebellion. What brings these characters to a second Hunger Games is not a writing spinning her wheels and just doing the same story again, but rather a logical progression of events and manipulations all trying to get these characters killed and silenced. What better way to kill off pesky political figures than make a great show out of it?
Much less interesting this time is the relationship between Claptrap and Peeta. Actually, that was never interesting, but its far less interesting this time now that the stakes have grown much larger. The first movie was about a girl simply trying to survive, now we're moving towards a full-scale war, and I do not care how much Miss Jellybean and Mr. Mellark's romance is fake and how much is real, and I definitely do not care about Liam Hemsworth in these movies. If they want a love triangle, it would help if Liam Hemsworth got more than two scenes in both films. Strong stirring characterization of the leads has never been The Hunger Games' best trait. When Claptrap jokingly self-describes herself as "stubborn and I shoot things with a bow", God help me and God help this franchise, I cannot really find a single other trait for this character. Luckily Jennifer Lawrence is super charismatic and is extremely beautiful, or else these whole movies would crash right on that very point. It was always fun watching Claptrap and Peeta have a fake cheesy romance, but its far less fun when their fake cheesy romance might actually be real.
More creative, though, is the supporting cast. The last crew in the Hunger Games was a collection of teenagers, mostly blank faces who were quickly dealt with and forgotten almost immediately. Even Roo, Claptrap's little buddy from the first movie only really had ten minutes of screentime, and no matter how stirring she might be to book readers, she was a very slight presence in that movie. This time Evil President Donald Sutherland has declared that all participants in the new Hunger Games will be former winners. So we have people who have managed to completely wipe out a competing team of twenty-three rivals. All of them are well-armed, very intelligent, and probably very ruthless. Even the nicest of the allies that Claptrap and Peeta make have this sense of underlining dread, since you can never be sure how much of their personality is an act. They did out-smart and kill all of those kids, after all. So now we have a charismatic blond boy who fights with a trident and is a master of secrets, a nerdy couple who work with poisons and technology, a couple of goths who are masters of stealth, a nudist girl with an ax, and an nice mute old lady - kind exterior or silent killer?
Even better for "The Hunger Games 2" is that this film actually gives the other participants screentime. I've complained before how the original Hunger Games focused on nobody but Claptrap in the actual action climax, and this is very different now. All of the more interesting characters get full arcs and major roles in the Hunger Games. This is the point that Claptrap and Peeta's relationship is entirely glossed over in the conclusion, letting the movie focus on its more interesting and colorful events. Some fans of the book (read: girls) might be disappointed that there is not very much love business towards the end, but its a thankful change. That the new director actually has the testicular fortitude to let you see what is happening in the action scenes is another great change. There is no more shaky cam covering the violence. It isn't a gore fest like "Battle Royale", but you can at least see what is happening, its not a schizophrenic mess bowdlerizing itself.
"The Hunger Games 2" is even something of a clever movie. It takes its plot in places I did not expect, its movements with the characters it sets up are really fascinating stuff. People who look like obvious villains are actually great allies. The final climax with the Hunger Games takes a very sudden right turn into a whole new dimension for this franchise. Whatever "Hunger Games 3" is going to be about** it will definitely not be covering the same old ground.
Really though, I don't know why Claptrap and Peeta have to such negative nancies. Yeah, their society has massive inequalities and all those poor handsome people have to live such awful lives, but they're really not looking at the brighter side of things. The Clown society looks like nothing but huge fun: a 24/7 party. You get to dress up like the flamingest most FABULOUS fashionista ever, dance the night away, and watch some damn good television. Be the campiest gayest thing to ever walk the Earth and camp up the night worse than Uma Therman in "Batman and Robin"? I'm ready to sign-up. Don't tell me that if you could die your hair bright pink and dress in an electric yellow suit with big disco shoes, you wouldn't do it. Stanly Tucci is having a ball, Toby Jones is having a ball, that guy who looked like Dr. Loveless from "Wild Wild West" was having a ball before he was secretly killed, even Donald Sutherland seems to love his job. Suzanne Collins is probably officially a part of the real-world 1% now thanks to this franchise, and I bet she's having a great time dressing fabulously, living in a mansion, and eating her own tiny colorful burgers. She's making the best of it. And I bet if she got the chance to have sex with either Liam Hemsworth or Josh Hutcherson, she would take it instead of moping.
All I'm saying is this: stop being such a bitch, Claptrap Jellybean. Its a party. And as for you Peeta: stop being such a fucking wet blanket. I want to see you put on some pink lipstick and a technicolor cyber-afro wig and sing "Sweet Transvestite" until that frown is upsidedown.
* I briefly caught a glimpse of a map in this movie, and apparently this is taking place in what is either an alternate universe or post-apocalyptic United States.
** Like all cashcow young adult franchises, "The Hunger Games 3" will be divided into two films stretched out across 2014 and 2015. However, unlike "Twilight 4", the final book in the Hunger Games series actually does seem like it has enough plotting and events to justify an additional two hours and another ticket.