The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games was a good book, and a decent movie. It had one really good trick – teenagers being forced to fight and die in the wild for public amusement, reality show styles – and it did it beautifully. Combine that with an interesting future world and tons of opportunities for catharsis, empathy, sympathy and for mood-swingy teenagers everywhere, and it’s easy to see why “I volunteer as tribute!” Became the “Yer a wizard, Harry!” of a new generation.

Compared to its overachieving older brother Harry Potter, though, the moody younger sister of the Hunger Games series isn’t nearly as good, for one very important reason: In the former, the narration was third-person limited. We could identify with Harry, but we got a healthy amount of distance that came in handy whenever he got too angry, too lovestruck or too stupidly focused on his hero complex.

HG, though, is written from the point of view of our angsty teen heroine, and she’s just annoying to be around. Her narration is a strange mix of withdrawn, emotionless recounting of events, and overdramatic, deeply purple prose for the emotional bits. Say ‘verisimilitude’ all you like (No, seriously, I like hearing people say it out loud), but realism should always take second place to entertainment, and it isn’t entertaining to have to read three books’ worth of narration by Katniss Everdeen…

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…okay, you know what? Time out. As an SFnF aficionado, I speak from experience when I say there’s a right way and a wrong way to do fake naming systems. These follow most of the rules – they do sound sort of like names would sound, they’re possible to pronounce – but the problem is that author Suzanne Collins never took the opportunity to say the names out loud, to someone who didn’t know the context. I’m serious: “Katniss Everdeen”? “Peeta Mellark”? Did someone take a note of my name changes and do a sort of reverse psychology thing, where the only thing I could to to make them more absurd would be to give them completely normal names?

Well if so, it’s working. So: In the first movie, Kathy and Peter were two poor workers, living on the outskirts of a totalitarian empire heavily based on Ancient Rome. To complete the metaphor, there are space-gladiator fights – every year, two dozen children are selected to fight in the “Hunger Games”, where they fight each other to the death, with lots of reality TV-satirizing elements along the way. Kathy was a young teenager, thinking about nothing more important taking over her mother’s job with the help of her baby sister, and getting to second space base with her boyfriend…

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…Gil. However, when two of the people chosen for that year’s Hunger Games were popular dude Peter and Kathy’s sister, Kathy was forced to volunteer in her sister’s stead, and eventually was declared co-winner with Peter after he came up with the idea of faking a romance for the enjoyment of the masses.

You’ll notice that Peter came up with this plan and not Kathy. This is the reason Catching Fire, this middle chapter of the trilogy, was the worst: Kathy has absolutely no agency at all in anything that happens throughout the entire book. Every action is taken, every decision is made, every plot point is catalyzed by someone else, and all she can do is react. Because it’s all from her point of view, and so colored by her own thoughts, you get the feeling that the entire book is “Bad things happen to her, and she feels sad about that.” In fact, the big climactic twist/final chapter foreshadow is someone telling her “All these bad things were in fact one big bad thing happening to you!”, and her having one big sad feeling about that.

Which is why Catching Fire is one of these rare cases where an adaptation of these YA novels is not only called for, but actually improves it: Because we’re out of Kathy’s head, the storyline feels much more interesting, and because there are sets and locations and other actors bearing the narrative weight, it feels like there’s more substance to the thing.

Our story starts with Kathy, played by Jennifer Lawrence, alone in the woods. Now, don’t get me wrong, she’s a fine actor, and she’s very good at the strong yet emotional characters she’s called on to play so often. The thing is, I don’t really think the whole “America’s girl next door, that America spies on from outside her window” thing is justified. Yeah, she’s good, but what really makes her so great are the roles she’s put in – she always gets a big chance to show off.

Or maybe I’m just sour because I don’t think she looks quite right. It’s the big eyes and the smooth features – they make her look like a doll. Her face is a doll face.

Maybe that’s why she slipped on her dress that one time – because her knees don’t bend!

Sorry. Anyway, Kathy is in the woods, with Gil. She hasn’t seen him for ages, but she avoids him because she’s still not sure whether she loves him or Peter. That’s right, folks: Love triangle time. Now, you’d think I’d be happy that this is so far in the background that it never really gets talked about on screen, but I’m not – it’s a huge dramatic missed opportunity, especially considering how the love triangle is resolved in the last book.

Kathy meets with the elderly space-Roman Emperor, played by Donald Sutherland, who really elevates him as the bad guy. He’s refreshingly direct and no-nonsense for this sort of thing: He sits her down, and says “Because your love with Peter made us bend the rules, we look weak. It would be a perfect time for rebellion, so stop that from going on – otherwise, I’ll kill you and your family.” He brings a lot of panache to the role – as well as expanding it from what is essentially a bit part. Since he’s one of the actual prime movers of the story, he’s pretty interesting to see onscreen from Kathy’s perspective.

So Kathy and Peter are swept away on a tour of all Space-Rome, chaperoned by their grizzled, jaded mentor and bubbly, oblivious publicist….

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…Ellie and Mitch. They encounter horrific scenes of rebellion being crushed by the evil space-gladiator forces (I like those futuristic plasticky versions of hoplite armor), and feel helpless to do anything about it, which is when it starts to feel too much like the book.

In their downtime, though, they finally get a chance to really get to know each other without a threat to their lives. They discover that they actually quite like each other, and look to each other for solace…yes, you can see where this is going, folks. No, I’m not happy about it.

Their tour ends rather quickly, culminating at a big party outside of the Imperial Palace. There’s a level of visual imagination here that the rest of the movie lacks – a sensory overload of set and costume design that we’ve never seen before or will again. It’s an odd omission, but it works in the film’s favor, since it gets the point across quickly and gracefully, with only a few pithy lines to show how evil this is, to submit to this extravagance and hedonism as the outer areas starve.

At the party, Kathy is also introduced to a pudgy dude who’s the brand new Commissioner of Major League Hunger Games…

No poster for this guy!

…Paul. Paul displays a sinister fondness for Kathy when they meet, considering that he’s strategizing with the Emperor on how best to destroy her as the icon of rebellion she became. This scene between Paul and the Emperor also shows one of my problems with the visual style – all the really bad guys just look like normal people in formal dress, as opposed to the crazy, repellently extravagant fashions that the rest of the Emperor’s court has. It’s obviously so the famous actors don’t have to spend time in makeup for too long, but there’s no in-universe justification for it, other than “Well, Half-Life 2 was cool.”

Anyway, when Kathy returns to her hometown she finds it’s been transformed into an even worse dystopia than before: A regimented, culture-destroying, Gil-torturing police state. This is all on Paul’s orders – he seems to realize that Kathy is the hero of the story, so the only way to stop the threat to their power is to break her completely.

This doesn’t work, because Kathy decides to join an underground resistance movement – or rather, Mitch, Peter and Gil create an underground resistance movement around her.

This is a great representation of her role in the story: She stands front and center, doing nothing as all the interesting stuff happens around her.

This is a great representation of her role in the story: She stands front and center, doing nothing as all the interesting stuff happens around her.

I mentioned that Kathy has no agency at all in the story, but to me that isn’t the whole problem. The problem is that this series is hailed so often as woman-empowering, feminism-inspiring, and all those other things that everyone in the game industry is sick and tired of hearing about. But people who actually read the series know that isn’t so. Let’s do a rundown of all the major female characters of this book: There’s Kathy herself, a wilting violet who barely does anything other than emote and badly narrate; Ellie, one of the people immensely improved when being played by an actress who gives her depth and emotion beyond a shallow caricature; Kathy’s sister, a factory-standard damsel in distress; a couple of people who I’ll get to soon, neither of whom are particularly good role models or well-written characters; and the main addition to the next book, who I really shouldn’t talk about how she’s a crazy, ruthless extremist…uh, I mean, who I really shouldn’t talk about. Sorry.

It’s more of a pop-culture osmosis thing – people think of Kathy as an ass-kicking, take-charge lady who’s wrested control of her life from the evil government that put her in the woods to kill people. This is true, in the same way that Captain Kirk was a maverick, rebel captain who played by his own rules – the rules of making out with alien babes, and of shooting anything less attractive. Yeah, everyone knows it, but it barely ever actually happened on Star Trek at all. This is the problem with not taking the time out to be a huge dork, folks!

I’m getting away from myself. Back in the story, the Emperor and Paul realize that their strategy of breaking Kathy’s spirit isn’t working – the only recourse left is to kill her, to show her that not even the winners of the Hunger Games are invincible.

Thus, we have the big plot hook of the story, to wit: “So, for the sequel, she has to fight in another, bigger Hunger Games!” Donald Sutherland announces (apparently, ten months or so have passed since the last scene) that this is the big anniversary special Hunger Games, where this year’s contestants will team up with a secret, forgotten winner of the Hunger Games played by John Hurt… ah, I’m kidding, that’s tomorrow. Instead, the winners of all previous Hunger Games – adults, not kids, so we can have more big-name actors – will be the contestants.

This is pretty much the only reason to justify doing this all over again, other than “Hey, this is The Hunger Games, there had better be some Hunger Games!” Because the next half-hour consists of almost nothing but retreads of the first movie – choosing ceremony (even managing to squeeze in a bored, perfunctory ‘I volunteer as tribute!’), fashion design drama, beauty pageant, talk-show appearance, space gym training montage – which is all done with an almost palpable air of fatigue and resignation. Harry Potter didn’t make a big deal out of the Sorting Hat and the Hogwarts Express after the first time – even in the second book, they were already mixing things up with the Flying Ford Anglia and so forth.

Not even the visual style helps, as all the new places seem to be taken straight out of the Star Wars prequels, with boring crowd scenes, sparse indoor locations, and the Emperor looking suspiciously like Jabba the Hutt.

It's the mustache. Looks too much like fat.

It’s the mustache. Looks too much like fat.

Again, the only redeeming quality of this whole second half is the new characters, who are both potential enemies and prospective allies against the real enemy of “The system, dude!”: There’s a Geordi la Forge-looking tech guy who owns the world’s only pair of glasses, named…

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…Bertie, a jock with a heart of gold named…

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…Frank, and a character who’s exactly like that ass-kicking version of Kathy I mentioned earlier, named…

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…Wait, Johanna? Johanna Mason? That’s…that’s a people name! Are you feeling quite all right, Suzanne?

We’re introduced to these people as Kathy’s first choice for allies. She’s more concerned, though, with keeping Peter alive – she makes Mitch promise to prioritize saving him over her, although no one really expects this to happen, since “Sacrificing himself for Kathy” seems to be one of Peter’s only character traits.

Speaking of which, this only accounts for five of the twenty-four people in the Hunger Games (not counting a few hangers-on for each like Frank’s grandmother or Bertie’s wife who only gets about two lines despite being played by veteran actress Amanda Plummer). Because of that fatigue I talked about, most of the other dozen or so seem to realize they’re not important – in their talk show appearances, they talk about what happens when they die during the Games, not if.

And soon enough, the games begin, with Paul overseeing things instead of the beard dude from last time. Just like last time, almost the entire arena is just a dense jungle, only this time there’s a big lake in the center. After the initial bloodbath (which finally has some life to it, with Johanna Mason beating on people with a giant space axe, and Kathy shooting people with her trademark bow so they drown), Kathy and Peter find themselves teamed up with Frank.

The first movie had the Hunger Games play out like a Gary Paulsen-standard survival in the wilderness story, but the tone is different this time – closer to a Vietnam War movie about losing humanity and facing the horrors of the Earth. Because most people have realized that Kathy is the hero now, they try to avoid her, so the gang only has the occasional human enemy, and instead mostly encounter stuff sent remotely from Paul. There’s some poison gas they have to run away from, The Happening-style, there’s some bad CGI baboons, there are some invisible force fields like in Time Bandits, and eventually there are Johanna Mason and Bertie.

With some assistance from Kathy, Bertie realizes the gimmick of the arena: It’s a giant clock (Yes, there’s a quote-unquote creepy rendition of “Hickory Dickory Dock”, and people saying lines like “Tick-tock!”, despite this being the future, and clockwork probably being extinct for centuries). The force field is the hour hand, sweeping around the whole thing twice a day and keeping a big forcefield roof over the whole thing. The bells at every hour are natural disasters, culminating in a giant lightning storm at midnight.

This was a pretty cool sounding idea, but the problem is that there’s no way to figure it out beforehand and no real way you can build on it afterward. Thus, we can tell that we’re rushing to the end: We get our big emotional close to the story, where Peter outright says his life doesn’t matter nearly as much as rebel leader who never does anything Kathy, which is on the shore of the lake because teen drama.

Then comes the big spectacle ending, where Bertie has a plan to essentially remove the wiring from the stadium’s automated system and use the lightning strike at midnight to short out the entire mechanism, killing everyone but them and making all five of them winners of the Hunger Games by default. Of course, since the Hunger Games are constantly being recorded, the Emperor finds out immediately and orders Paul to stop them. It’s implied he gives their location to the few remaining nameless contestants, who ambush them just before midnight. There’s lots of fire and blood and shouting, and the whole thing culminates with the big shot of Kathy shooting the force field hour hand with some copper wire tied to an arrow, as the blue glowing electricity travels up the wire. It’s loud, satisfying, and blue and orange beyond measure.

Honestly, was there any way this couldn't end with a blue beam of energy shooting into a big orange thing in the sky?

Honestly, was there any way this couldn’t end with a blue beam of energy shooting into a big orange thing in the sky?

As everything fizzles into nothingness around her, Kathy collapses in the heroic fatigue shot, before she’s rescued almost immediately. It seems that Mitch and Bertie were coordinating the whole time – this was the plan all along, and no one told Kathy because she’s so weak-willed that the Emperor would have found out right away (Remember what I said about female empowerment?). Also, Paul is there. He was a good guy the whole time, apparently – taking down the system from inside, dude! – and has brought Gil with him, to give a big shock moment to set up the next film.

Catching Fire loses steam as soon as the second Hunger Games are announced, but that’s quite a ways in, and the rest is a gigantic improvement on the original. I guess that’s about as much as I could ask for.

TWO THUMBS UP: The visuals (especially that one scene in the capital), the costumes

THUMBS UP: The acting and effects

THUMBS DOWN: The second half, the redo of the first movie

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The lack of agency in the plot, the dumb names

Thor: The Dark World

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Thor was bad because so much of it was what Douglas Adams termed “a beautiful void” (speaking of Adams, the movie is also one of the better adaptations of his works); very good looking, but with almost nothing in the way of character development or plot. Sure, people are talking and moving around with haste, but for long stretches of the movie it’s never clear what they plan to accomplish.

Thor: The Dark World recognizes this problem in its predecessor, and addresses it by giving it an even thinner, less interesting plot that only serves as an excuse for a veritable toy box of a film – a combination of loosely connected performances, set pieces, scenes, locales and pithy lines that exist mostly for their own sake rather than to combine into any kind of story.

As such, this review will be on its terms, not mine, presenting a binary judgement of each of these items in chronological order, with minimal connective explanation from yours truly.

Rest assured, the fact that I’ve got my hands so full this month with Catching Fire, Frozen and Day of the Doctor all in five days has nothing at all to do with this.

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THUMBS UP: It’s correct – Thor is the main character in the movie, and the Dark World is a crucial location

THUMBS DOWN: Even worse than Star Trek Into Darkness when it comes to the endless parade of “dark” titles – Knight, Shadows, Of the Moon…uh, City, Crystal, Star…Souls… Read the full post »

Ender’s Game

Note: This review will contain no discussion of Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card. I already have plenty of things to grouch about with this, adding the largely unrelated views of a one-hit-wonder author would make this way too long.

That's one big X-Wing.

That’s one big X-Wing.

Ender’s Game is – let’s be clear here – a classic of our times. Aside from being a deeply affecting and surprisingly prophetic sci-fi story, it’s the premier work of the age on the complicated mix of duty, pride, loneliness and angst felt by students and children the world over. Seriously – Adrian Mole? Tom Brown? Arthur Read? Freakin’ Harry Potter? They have nothing on Ender Wiggin.

The problem with this is that no one seems to realize it, least of all author Orson Scott Card. Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide – the sequels to the story – are much more traditional cosmic sci-fi stories, to the extent that the latter has the exact same plot as Halo 4 – and again, I’m being completely serious. All you console gamers who like Halo? Have you played the decently-received video game Halo 4, and paid attention to the story? Great, now you don’t need to read the award winning novel Xenocide.

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Batman: Arkham Origins

It’s scarily easy to make Batman look pathetic.

What’s this fall’s most-anticipated new TV show directed exclusively at nerds? Well, probably the new The Flash show, thanks to its devotion to comic-book style storytelling and reliance on sexy young men as major characters.

But that’s sort of irrelevant right now, since in a clear second place, we get Gotham, another DC universe adaptation, although how much of an adaptation it really is is sort of in doubt. Originally it was supposed to be a cop show based around increasingly more outlandish and supernormal criminals, who would of course be cadet Batman villains, but then it became apparent that this wouldn’t have wide enough appeal, and it became straight up Smallville with Batman instead of Superman.

I mention Gotham because it’s only the second Batman prequel to come out in a year – the other is highly successful video game and Grand Theft Auto V’s lone, audacious competitor, Batman: Arkham Oranges.

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Gravity

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I’m sorta in two minds about popular sci-fi filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (full name ‘Alfonso Ka…koo…how do you say it?’). One the one hand, his two American-released movies, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, were among my favorites as a child and adult respectively.

But on the other hand, no one likes admitting that he’s a sci-fi filmmaker. I mean, quite aside from the movie about time-traveling teenage wizards, or the feature-length Twilight Zone episode, there’s his latest movie, the space-action blockbuster Gravity. Critics up to and including the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who has the unparalleled honor of having his reviews at the top of every Rotten Tomatoes page he’s on, try to avoid the guy’s genre-movie roots.

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Agents of SHIELD: Pilot

Well, you try thinking of a better acronym.

Yeah, I like the Marvel movies.

But yeah, I also don’t like quite a few things they represent – like how commercialized they are, the ouroboros storytelling method that means the movies won’t stop even if everyone wants them to, and so on – but the fact remains that the actual movies are still in a golden age because of their post-modern storytelling sensibilities and an imaginative visual style coupled with archetypal storytelling…man, those were long words.

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Futurama

You might have heard about the just completed quote-unquote “television event” on one of the Fox Network’s unruly children, where every single one of the 550-plus episodes of The Simpsons was shown in broadcast order.

I really don’t feel anything particular about it. I’m blessed to live near a wonderful relative who has every single Simpsons DVD there is, so I still treat myself to a classic episode every now and again. Seriously, I was struck a couple months ago with an urge to watch “King-Size Homer”, and I just…did. I felt like a god, I don’t mind saying.

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Elysium

District 9, the turtleneck and shades-wearing alternative to the Yankees cap and cargo shorts of Avatar, was a good movie. But let’s be honest here: it wouldn’t have been called “The best sci-fi movie of the decade” without the well-known Cinderella story of its creation.

That story is one of Afrikaner and film geek Neill Blomkamp, who made a short special-effects reel with his friends that impressed overgrown nerd Peter Jackson so much that he signed Blomkamp on to help make his planned movie of the Halo games.

Now, a quick side note: A Halo movie, even done by these guys with undeniable passion for the series, would have been dumb and bad. In fact, now that they’ve got Ridley Scott signed on instead, it’s looking to be equally dumb and bad as the last sci-fi movie he made – seriously, check out that fake Idris Elba – but at least it looks to be more harmless than that other movie he’s been threatening everyone with. So yeah, one of the many reasons District 9 is so good is that it prevented another, much worse movie from being made.

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Pacific Rim

Whatever I have to say to praise or criticize it, I have to admit that Guillermo del Toro’s Sino-American nerd-pleaser Pacific Rim is no Star Wars. Star Wars was just the biggest thing on the planet for months, whereas Pacific Rim never even cracked the #1 spot in the box-office rankings. [Yes, I’m still sour, whyever do you ask?]

And anyway, Star Wars’ gigantic success was due to a dozen unrepeatable factors, not the least of which was that there was jack-all else in theaters at the time – the #2 spot at the box office in 1977 went Smokey and the Bandit. A decent movie, I guess, and one which definitely had some cultural impact, but definitely not anything close to George Lucas’ genre-defying and genre-defining space opera.

But in many respects, Pacific Rim is cut from the same cloth as the third-most popular film of all time (numbers one and two should be obvious). Both are very personal and childlike pieces, almost autobiographical in their obvious inspiration from the writer-director’s childhood favorites from Japanese and American entertainment. They both have a simple and direct narrative arc, with a minimum of plot or character development, and an emphasis on relationships between the characters driving the action.

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Deus Ex: The Fall

A bit more of a conventional review today, folks…insofar as that term can be applied to several pages of discourse on a glorified expansion pack for a cult video game, prepared eleven months after anyone anywhere cared.

That said, let’s talk about that cult video game. Deus Ex, a 2000 RPG game, is the Gone With The Wind of video games. For ages it’s been frequently cited as one of the capital-letter Best Ever, and it features broad entertainment in perennial genres mixed with some seriously deep ruminations and excellent character development. For all that, though, it isn’t popular with modern audiences at all because of how mired it is in the bygone age when it was made.

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