By Jacob Mertens.
Revolution used to be a tangible part of our history. Not just stories of Malcolm X riling up a packed church in Harlem or Nelson Mandela looming in a prison cell. There was a sense that revolution was both cyclical and inevitable: a snake in the grass that could strike at the comfy establishment without warning. Or a stark mob that would run the old kings out of their citadels and start the process over again. If we are to take away anything from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, perhaps it should be that the notion of revolution has become media confection, a sweet dose of wish fulfillment sold to the have not social strata, and that it cannot survive in modern society as anything else.
To clarify, I don’t want to make this article out as an indictment of Francis Lawrence’s film. Catching Fire simply fulfills a public need, not only to entertain but to soothe a yearning for a kind of autonomous freedom that does not exist anymore. Consider, much like the world of The Hunger Games, how media has proliferated all aspects of our lives. Cameras have become more ubiquitous both in surveillance and personal use, news is reported and manufactured on a 24-hour cycle, and the public stays glued to their smart phones like an internet IV drip. With that constant media presence, there is also the surreptitious sense of an Orwellian Big Brother standing behind the curtain—a suspicion not helped by news stories of wiretapping and spy drones.
In Catching Fire, this presence manifests as the all-encompassing arena, a digital recreation of the world made suited to control representatives of the working class. The collective Big Brother here, spearheaded by Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), moves the tributes around like drunken chess pieces. They are compelled to change course by poisonous fog or massive tidal waves or any other number of inventive horrors, all engineered in an attempt to turn the arena grounds into a claustrophobic graveyard and pit the embattled characters against each other. And throughout the film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) must be reminded by her peers to keep in mind “who the enemy is,” because the artifice of a televised Battle Royale makes that distinction almost impossible to recognize.
It does not take much of a leap to see a parallel in our society, how the effervescent buzz of media vies for the public’s attention and both distracts from and trivializes important issues. Instead of the machinations of the arena, one might substitute the tragedy porn of major news outlets, a constant barrage of real life misery that cannot help but be arresting. Additionally, even quality reporting must exist and thrive within a format that answers foremost to sensationalism, ratings, and corporate interests (and that’s not even touching on the subject of our media explicitly drumming up support for war). Admittedly, the comparison with the film is not so striking that it should suggest the same level of dissociation. After all, Capital citizens in Catching Fire consume oppression as entertainment; we merely consume common despair as entertainment. But with the arrival of the technological age, one can easily see that political clarity has been rendered moot, whether or not there is some sinister hand at work behind it.
When Katniss launches her high-voltage arrow at the dome toward the end of this film, toppling the boundaries of her simulacrum environment, she strikes back in a way that cannot be duplicated in real life. Indeed, the Wall of Jericho is a sturdy firewall, and the path to separation from media lies in an alienation from society. Technology is too integral to our daily life, and if it has been hijacked in some ways by corrupt or base interests, it’s still not something that people can easily walk away from. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple truism: these days, someone is always selling you something. And believe me, if a revolution can sell it’ll be on the inventory list (mass-produced Che Guevara T-shirts can attest to that). Unfortunately, Gil Scott-Heron uttering “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to a backdrop of conga drums is looking more and more like a dream unrealized. I mean come on, look at how well the Hunger Games series has been doing. Of course the revolution will be televised, and when it fails to pull in viewers it will be snuffed out like any other program.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
For more on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, see what Wheeler Winston Dixon had to say here.