I watched The Hunger Games-sequel for the second time with some friends, rather impulsively, and spent the whole time nitpicking it in my head. As some of you know, I am an aspiring screenwriter with three (terrible) feature scripts under my belt (none produced, as to spare the other inhabitants on this planet), but I still feel pretty comfortable criticizing someone else's work. SPOILERS everyone, as we dig in deep!
I posted the review on Letterboxd, so if anyone is there I'd be thankful if you gave it a like. Here's the link. Also, if there are anyone on Letterboxd here, shout out! I'd like to give you a follow.
Right. Here's the review, in text post, FULL of spoilers. Again, don't read if you haven't seen the movie or don't want to know stuff.
"Moves and countermoves...
Back when the first Hunger Games-movie came out, I wrote a big, long review of it. (You can find it here) My first time seeing its sequel, having once again read the book, I just wrote a couple of sentences and threw the film out of my brain. Forgot pretty much everything about it. Then yesterday, I impulsively joined some friends on a cinema trip and started to pay attention to a lot of the little things. Strangely, the film ends up being both better and worse than its predecessor.
So let's talk about Catching Fire. Put out those matches before you burn yourself, get a cup of tea and/or coffee, and get those feet up on the table. Lean back. You ready? This is probably going to take some time.
1. One movie, two stories.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the problematic two-part story of The Tour and The Quarter Quell, with the one tie between them being The Revolution. This is a tough balance, and the film ends up feeling divided because of it.
We start off in District 12. Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are living 25 meters apart, but are no closer because of it (dammit Katniss, just marry him already!). They're about to go on the victory tour when President Snow pops by to convince Katniss to go that extra length in convincing the districts that what she did at the end of the first film was not an act of rebellion, but an act of love. The president then leaves, but not without threatening Katniss' family and friends - which makes little sense, since he a mere minute earlier told them he wanted them to be friends or, if that wasn't possible, allies. And with that goal and those stakes, we're off on the Victory Tour.
Now, I like this scene. In the book, it's very different as I recall, but there was something very interesting when Snow opens the scene by saying "Let's cut the lies" and Katniss agrees. They talk openly, honestly, to each other; it's not often you see a "villian" and a "hero" do that, especially not in these circumstances. It's also a rare moment for this film, as the world of these twelve districts are filled with propaganda and charades, carried out to both calm, distract and fool the inhabitants.
Which, of course, is what follows in the Victory Tour. But, sadly, there's little Peeta and Katniss can do besides smile and wave and hold their speeches - which they do badly - in the face of damn near rebellion. Some subtletly was lacking here, as there was no way they would broadcast these to all the other districts. I was hoping for some devious and ingenious plan from Snow on how to at least prevent the onlookers from screaming bloody murder at the poor surviving tributes. But alas, they finish the trip, Peeta and Katniss share a moment - which, again, is a very well-written one - and the story moves on.
The main problem with this film, and it's something we'll be coming back to, is the way it works. On a scene-by-scene basis, it's entertaining, suspenseful, heartwarming, funny, and all that. It's everything the fans could hope for. But the whole thing feels so disjointed and poorly put together, and I suspect that's at least part because of the two-part structure of the film. It's different in a book, where you can smack a "PART TWO" and make people expect something else, but in a film everything should be tight and held together, and the film could've benefited from some sort of structure that put this tour in the perspective of what happens afterwards.
Which brings us to... 2. The Foolery of President Snow.
Oh, President Snow. You utter buffoon. Your solution to "the people in the districts are gearing up towards a revolution" is "give them more to be angry about"? Not very clever. In retroperspective I get it, as he's being guided on by Plutarch Bumblebee (one of the best names ever, by the way), but seriously? How the hell did you manage to run this world so long without mucking it up if you think this is a good idea?
President Snow's ridiculous logic brings forth a number of problems in this world. I get that it's supposed to be unfair and that all the other districts are there to help the Capitol get by, but when you have a rioting mob in the districts while everyone is gorging themselves in the Capitol... I mean, come on. There's a simple solution here. Spread the goods a little. What's the harm? Oh, sure, people won't see the President as unfair and punishing and an asshole anymore, but how is that a bad thing? We are given literally no good reasons for why this system should keep going like it does. There's clearly not a food problem. No one gains anything on not making the people in the districts happier, raising their living standars a little bit. It doesn't make a lick of sense. Of course, this is a dystopia so things pretty much have to be bad, but there are solutions staring them in the face. But no, out with the "peacekeepers" and commence the whipping! Shut down the black markets! Burn their personal stuff! They have to be punished for speaking up, because that surely won't make them more comitted to the idea of a revolution.
I get it's supposed to be social commentary and whatever, but there is a line. The scene with the peacekeepers in District 12 is one of this years' dumbest scenes, as our main characters have nothing to lose. The peacekeeper is an idiot, because any tributes shot by standing up for someone they care about is the last straw for this whole thing to go up flames. It makes no sense, from any perspective. Again, it's a good scene, engaging scene, but in the puzzle that is this movie, it makes so little sense.
Eventually, Plutarch Bumblebee and President Snow hatch a plan for getting rid of these troublesome tributes, which leads us to... 3. The Quarter Quell.
This is a good plan. It shows that the Capitol is laying down the hammer and the President shows that no one is safe. Unfortunately, the whole thing is a bit too much of a replay of the previous film, with new players. And, shockingly, the film goes in every damn trap that the first one went in. *sigh*
The first problem is the characters. They introduce Finnick, Johanna, Mags and the two tech-people; we get one scene with each of them before it's arena-time. They show us the good tributes, the one's who'll be dangerous, and they show us the weak ones. If you can't guess who will be on Team Katniss by the time they get to the arena, I don't know what would help. Huge blinking arrows might've been more subtle than this.
Furthermore, instead of actually showing us the interplay of all these characters in the arena, they immediately kill off everyone who are weak or not on Team Katniss, leaving only the dangerous ones left. Bo-ring. There are no dangerous or shaky bonds of trust. No betrayals. Just Team Katniss vs. The Arena. They run through a lot of the arena, setting up the reveal that it's a clock, then reveals it and one of the tech-guys come up with a plan to kill everyone off. There's a fight with the dangerous ones, and another idiotic and ridiculous scene (we'll get back to that), and then it's plan-time.
This whole part of the film feels rushed. There are tons of ridiculously awesome ideas to fill this part of the film with, but they just don't. They kill off every unecessary tribute when they could've been included and betrayed someone, run off on their own or died and made us stare the horrible situation in the face. Instead they just disappear to the sound of cannons, before the games have even begun.
Which brings us to... 4. Poor Peeta.
Seriously. Take a drink every time this guy almost dies, is hurt in some way or is in the risk of both. By not focusing on the other tributes, and immediately killing them off, we're left with Katniss, Peeta, Mags and Finnick. Katniss is off limits as our main character, so there's no use putting her in danger. Mags is doomed from the start, so her eventual death comes as no surprise. Finnick is a potential dangerous enemy, so of course the film is going to keep him around as long as possible, to ramp up tension - will he betray them? Will he stay loyal? That leaves Peeta. And boy, does Peeta get it. He almost drowns, he actually dies from touching the forcefield - again, the scene is good, but the context is crap - he's hurt the most by the poisenous fog, he's almost killed by monkeys and saved by some character we never even get to meet before he/she dies... It gets stupid, not to mention old, fast.
5. Plan or Happenstance?.
There's this thing called "the promise of the premise" in storytelling. I've talked about it before somewhere - it might be in my review of The Hunt - but what it means is basically, if you're going to write a movie about giant monsters taking over the world, there better be at least one scene with giant monsters actually takes over the world, smashing buildings and creating chaos.
I'm talking about this not because I want giant monsters in Catching Fire (then again, I want giant monsters in everything, and why couldn't there have been one itty bitty tiny giant monster?), but because of The Plan. The Plan is, of course, to use the lightning in the 12 o'clock tree and electrocute the other, dangerous tributes not on Team Katniss. As a member of the audience, we always want to see this plan either work - or fail. What we don't want, however, is to suddenly switch the plan into something entirely different that throws everyone off and changes the gameplan entirely. But Catching Fire doesn't care what you want, and it does exactly this, robbing you of the possibility to see the plan you're told completed. It promises one thing and delivers something else.
This is only part of my pickle with the plan. Because who the fuck is in on this, and who the fuck is not? After seeing the film twice, I still don't have any clue. I know Finnick and Johanna is in on it, and probably that male tech-guy. I know Katniss was kept out of the loop, but does Peeta know? Mags? And why does that random morfling sacrifice herself for Peeta? Was she in on it too?
Going further, Katniss comes up with a lot of stuff. It's a step up from the first movie, where she's not a very pro-active protagonist, but here it makes no sense. Someone else should take control, as Katniss isn't in on the damn plan. Still, she directs them to the beach where they meet Johanna and the tech-people. That should be Finnick. There are so many of these moments where someone else should take control in order for the real plan of escaping the arena should work, but instead Katniss takes charge and everything that's needed to make the plan happen seems to occur randomly.
This leads us to the most ridiculous scene in the entire film, when we discuss...
6. The Twist.
I'm just going to attack it head on, right out of the gate. It's "Spin the clock." Why in the holy hell does he do it? On that godddamn clock is all people Plutarch has put good money on; people who should escape the arena and join the revolution. The whole plan hinges on them understanding the arena, which are really just the needed tools of the escape plan, and then Plutarch changes it up, putting everyone on the clock in mortal danger. What a shit move.
Now, the twist is neat, I'll give them that. It's a nice cliffhanger, made even better by the destruction of District 12, which I'll get back to. But the execution... Oh my. I just... Really can't believe they did it like this.
Imagine knowing about the connection between these games and the revolution. Imagine them ramping up the tension from the very first moment of the games, making Katniss and Peeta decide who to trust. Imagine getting to know a vast array of characters, then watching some of them dying shockingly, as others betraying them. Imagine worrying the entire time they're in the arena that someone on Team Katniss might actually be working for Capitol, that they've put their trust in the wrong person. Imagine these games being the revolution in miniscule, with people buying into Capitol's political agenda and fighting to become victors, heroes, once again. Imagine Team Katniss having a plan, but having to hide that plan from the people watching, from the cameras. Imagine how much this would've changed up, how higher the stakes would've been. Imagine how few times Peeta would've been hurt just to remind us things were still dangerous. Imagine how they'd "randomly" meet upon the others on the beach, playing it off like that for the cameras, hiding the real truth. Imagine everything going sideways at the end, the whole plan fucked, everyone running around to chaos, until Katniss shoots that arrow and saves them all. Imagine how they could've kept the same basic structure and plot as the first film, yet executing it in a wildly different way.
Imagine how this would've made the "Moves and countermoves" line obvious, how much more biting the social commentary would've been. It would've been the "reality television with death"-commentary as the first one, just sky-rocketed with themes of revolution. It pains me how rich this film could've been, how exciting and suspenseful, instead of just being "The Tour" and then a re-do of the first film with a cliffhanger. Now, further imagine them using the tour to introduce the other victors, with Haymitch making plans, Katniss and Peeta choosing who to trust, laying out the plan. Imagine the reveal of Plutarch Bumblebee being on their side when they came to the Capitol, and how tense that would've made all the scenes between him and President Snow, how fun it'd be to see these moves and counter-moves come out in the open instead of being hidden. Katniss could've struggled with telling Gale, the charade would be in effect from the moment they entered the training sessions and met the other victors. The whole thing would've garnered a ton of new dimensions.
7. The Destruction of District 12.
So here's how it should've been done.
FADE IN: EXT. THE RUINS OF DISTRICT 12 - DAY
Katniss stands among the rubble of her house.
The CORPSE of a dead cat lies in one of the beds.
Katniss removes some of the rubble, takes up a NECKLACE. She opens it.
Inside are pictures of HER MOTHER and SISTER.
KATNISS: "How did it come to this?"
REVEAL Gale, standing behind her. He comforts her, puts his hand over her shoulders. GALE: "I don't know."
GALE: "Katniss, we have to go. Now."
Katniss turns around to see - something is coming closer. It's A CONVOY.
Gale and Katniss run towards a FUTURISTIC AIRPLANE. They get inside and take off. PAN OVER THE DESTROYED RUINS OF DISCTRICT 12.
TITLE CARD: "The Hunger Games: CATCHING FIRE"
And off we should've gone. Haymitch should've informed them early that they were being put back in the arena with the other past tributes, the tour should've been part tribute-meet and recruitment-tour, with "who can we trust?" and "what is the plan?", the revolution hanging over everything after. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire should've been a re-do of the first film, with a bigger scope and more going on beneath it, bridging the all-out revolution in the third film (I assume) with the Hunger Games-formula of the first. It should've been complex, riveting stuff. Instead it's a divided re-do of the first film, suffering from many of the same problems, while simultaneously being a better film because of well-written scenes, better directing and amazing actors that manage to (mostly) make you forget how bland and "seen it all before" the material really is.
It's too bad, becuase with a little fixing, this film could've been amazingly terrific. Oh well. Here's to the next one...