SEATTLE, Washington – Behind the near sublime acting of Jennifer Lawrence, the boyish smiles of Josh Hutcherson, and uncharacteristically poor swimming skills from Sam Claifin’s character Finnick Odair (a would-be Poseidon figure) lies a movie that brilliantly portrays poverty in a dystopian society.
In a world where the one percent, as represented by the Capitol, wields an Orwellian control over its inhabitants, “Catching Fire” makes it known that this is not a film about glory. Even further, it is one of those exceptional films that illustrates the effects of poverty without turning it into a zoo: the audience watches and prods from the safety behind the bars while the caged animals lie sedately before them.
Any given action film will provide a voyeuristic look into poverty for the audience without getting too attached. Usually the protagonist, while of the community, remains separate due to some special quality, power, or circumstance that sets him or her apart. From the safety of the protagonist’s perspective, they see the circumstances of poverty, hunger, a certain bleakness, without having to delve through it themselves. Something to pity, but ultimately out of their hands.
In this film, however, director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend,” “Water for Elephants”) creates a vivid dichotomy between the world of the haves and the have-nots that forces the viewer to size up the situation and react. A key weapon in his arsenal is Lawrence, whose portrayal of a post-traumatic stress disorder episode in the opening sequence establishes the sober tone for the rest of the movie.
Orwellian Control and Social Uprisings
The film opens onto the countryside of Katniss’ District 12, a mining region painted in somber shades of gray. The people of District 12 are portrayed much like their region; gray and well-worn, like an old pick worn down to nearly nothing. What remains is steel, beaten down but unyielding.
Their temperament illustrates an important aspect of the poor in this society. While Katniss may have sparked the dissent that had been fomenting, the districts took their agency into their own hands and created the revolution they wanted.
It is not difficult to see parallels between the uprising in the Districts and uprisings that swept across Africa in the past three years. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and several others all took part in the Arab Spring, a movement that ushered out dictators in a wide-encompassing wave. Whether led by urban youth or armed rebels, they represent the power of the disenfranchised when unified.
Exaggeration in the Capitol, Echoes in Real Life
The scenes at the capital illustrate in lurid visuals the over-indulgence of the ruling class. The Capitol and its inhabitants provide an almost shocking contrast to the poverty of the outlying districts, ranging from elaborately grandiose buildings to people sporting vibrantly-hued outfits and harsh makeup.
Stanley Tucci’s character Caesar Flickman, the commentator for “The Hunger Games,” embodies the jarring effect of this fashion-centric society on steroids. While Katniss’ Capitol mentor Effie Trinket might have introduced us to the fashions of the Capitol, her clothing and make up was so over the top that it was quickly dismissible. Caesar presents a different problem. He almost looks like one of us. A laugh that goes on slightly too long, teeth a few shades too white to be believable, and hair a demure shade of eggplant, his appearance could almost go without comment in our own society.
In a film like this, the audience is expected to identify with the Districts. Unfortunately, the blatant divide between the classes is not translatable to reality. The poor are too understandable to pity and condescend, but the rich are too recognizable entirely to dismiss.
War is not glorified, poverty is neither romanticized nor pitied, and the people enable themselves. The only undesired achievement of this film is the one person sitting in the cinema wondering who’s going to win.
Sources: Demystifying the Arab Spring. Foreign Affairs, Beyond the Blood: What The Hunger Games Can Teach Tweens
Photo: Nuff Nag