Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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A while back when I wrote up Point Break as a classic movie, a number of people got their panties in a bunch. "It’s genre trash." "It’s overrated now because of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar for The Hurt Locker." Opinions abounded.
I don’t care, because there is no algorithm for determining a classic movie. It’s like art or porn: You know it when you see it. Which means that it’s completely subjective.
Of course, some categories of value for classic movies can tip the scale in a way that’s fairly inarguable – like influence. Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, Snow White, Star Wars, Toy Story ... classics due to influence. Then again, The Great Train Robbery is just as influential as Birth of a Nation, and that doesn’t show up on a lot of classic-movie lists.
Other determinations, however, are completely subjective. They are the movies that changed you. They are your personal pantheon. Knowing what they are, whatever they are, helps you understand yourself and your relationship to aesthetics, history, identity, knowledge – you know, all the stuff that comprises your world. In fact, I’d recommend everyone come up with their top 10 classic movies, letting go of whatever AFI or Roger Ebert says. If Heartbeeps is in your top 10, so be it. In fact, if Heartbeeps is in your top 10 and you’re a single lady, get ahold of me through my editor; we probably have a lot in common.
All of which brings me to this week’s classic movie:
1979’s The Black Hole.
If you’re watching really carefully, you can see a poster for The Black Hole in Flynn’s kids’ room in the recent Tron: Legacy. That’s because The Black Hole was the other reasonably successful cheesy science fiction movie Disney released in the late '70s early '80s, in a continuing effort to ride the sci-fi wave of Star Wars.
The Black Hole is a strange, scary movie that makes very little sense and ends with a drop into the truly bizarre that Disney should be very proud of. It is also one of those movies that makes physicists want to wrap their hands around Hollywood’s throat and squeeze. That's because it tells the story of a bunch of wayward starfarers who happen upon a ship run by a crazy scientist, played by Maximillian Schell. The crazy scientist has a ship that can defy the gravity of the black hole, and plans to head inside to explore “beyond.” The black hole, of course, you can see with your naked eye – because, like, it’s blacker than the rest of space. And also a little bluer.
As a kid I couldn’t appreciate the silly physics. I think what drilled the movie so deeply into me was its other strange aspects. For instance, the crazy scientist is attended to by these robed and masked attendants. He’s cagey about what these things are – maybe androids – but eventually we see one of the masked attendants limping, and then later we see them carry out a funeral for one of their own. So naturally one of the starfarers sneaks up to one of the attendants and pulls off the mask. This sequence so terrified me as a child that I didn’t know what the starfarer saw behind the mask until I was well into my 20s.
The movie also has a giant red robot that kills with razor fans, an aging floating robot and a telepathic connection between a blonde and another floating robot. And Ernest Borgnine. Let’s not forget Ernest Borgnine.
None of that compares, however, to the final sequence in the film. As Chekhov once said, if you introduce a black hole probe ship in Act One, you must have your protagonists head into the black hole by Act Three. And so they do. What follows is, well, let’s just say that Stanely Kubrick, Milton, and J.G. Ballard would be proud. I’m talking traversing what might be heaven and hell, celestial robot/human embraces and the absolute “beyond.”
In a world where studios pay brain trusts of Oscar winners to ensure that everything in a movie is clear, that all loose ends get tied up neatly, and every question is answered, a movie that’s just plain strange can be refreshing. As my third-year playwrighting instructor Nicole Burdette used to say, when telling a story, you don’t have to explain more than life does.
And life, frankly, doesn’t have that many answers. Which is why, in my own personal pantheon, The Black Hole is a classic movie.