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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This article contains mild spoilers for The Host.
Underneath The Host's schmaltzy romance and blinding shine of silver sports cars lies a challenging theme of identity and existence, both Earthly and beyond. The concepts are deepened with a little background information: the movie is based on a book of the same name by Stephenie Meyer, best known for penning the Twilight series. Meyer is also one of the most successful authors to come out of the Mormon faith. Viewed through a lens of the uniquely American religion, The Host ends up more of a refraction of those beliefs than anything found in her vampiric romance saga.
Some connections are superficial: in the film, the human race is taken over by body-snatching aliens and forced to go into hiding. The "resistance" dwells in caves, living off their stored food and underground fields of wheat. The world of The Host may revolve around a doomsday scenario, but it bears striking resemblance to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most notably, the Church practices food storage and the image of grain features prominently in The Book of Mormon (according to Robert R. Bennett of the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, there are more than 28 references to grain in the Book of Mormon). Meyer tells us that it was Host director Andrew Niccol who pushed for the inclusion of wheat because he "really liked the visual" and that any LDS connection is total coincidence. But even persons of the Mormon faith see the roots of her science fiction tale.
"There were many LDS/Mormon overtones on gender and race embedded in the Twilight series, but The Host seems more connected to to the Mormon faith to me," says Joanna Brooks, a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. According to Brooks, The Host's broader strokes — from the alien "Souls" (terminology from Meyer's original text) entering the body of humans to the possible interplanetary afterlife suggested by the film's conclusion — explore foundational Mormon doctrine.
Brooks notes that Mormon theology teaches that before the souls of human beings come to this life, spirits live in a preexistence with God. She describes it as a "pre-heaven." But in that time before life on Earth, one-third of the souls that "pre-existed" were cast out of the presence of God and followed Lucifer instead of finding bodies on Earth. There have also been suggestions that the slighted souls attempt to intervene with the affairs of the world. "Sometimes, you will hear as folk doctrine, the idea that this one-third are so envious that they will try and take over," Brooks says. "But the teaching that there were a large number of spirits that never made it to Earth who might like to is actually doctrine."
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The blurry line between doctrine and Mormon folklore, a visible sign that the 19th century religion continues to evolve, is at the heart of The Host. In the end of the film, the main character Wanda (an alien inhabiting the body of a human woman, Melanie) decides to opt out of being transplanted to a spaceship and sent to another planet, choosing instead to be removed from Melanie's body and "die." This strikes Brooks as a reference to Kolob, the thing closest to the dwelling place of God. It's another Mormon story that has slowly become myth in the grand tapestry of beliefs. Other Mormon writings took the concept a step further — and sound more like the basis of The Host. "Even our most speculative theologians in the 19th century inferred that there could be other universes where other divine beings with a parallel to God may also have dominion," Brooks says. "A cosmological consciousness is part of the Mormon tradition."
Meyers isn't the only Mormon science fiction writer to look to her religion for inspiration. Nathaniel Givens, blogger for popular Mormon site Times And Seasons, cites Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card, who reworked the history of Joseph Smith, founder of Latter Day Saint Movement, for his book The Seventh Son, and touches on Mormon themes in the Ender's sequel Speaker for the Dead. Other prominent Mormon sci-fi writers include Glen A. Larson, whose show Battlestar Galactica includes a place called "Kobol," and fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, who took over the poplar Wheel of Time series. For Givens, The Book of Mormon, unlike other religious texts, considers all sides of the universe, creating a faith that nurtures science fiction writing.
"Since Mormonism also makes doctrinal claims that go well outside of most religions (for example, about what happens before and after this mortal life) and also has long believed in compatibility between science and religion, the direction that Mormons take with their individual speculation is very compatible with sci-fi," Givens says. The blogger points to American sci-fi writer Pamela Sargent, who described science fiction as "the literature of ideas," and believes that a large part of Mormon practice is working out big ideas that have to do with how we got where we are and where we might get where we're going. "If Mormons want to try and dig deeper and understand the meaning behind or connections between elements of official Mormon doctrine, then that becomes sort of their own responsibility," he says. "So there's just this deep culture of amateur theology in Mormonism; we spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how things might work, theologically."
Givens notes that he does not believe either Meyer or Scott Card depict things they already believe, aligning with Meyer's retort that The Host isn't an overtly Mormon film. There's a presumption to how faith-based works operate — a "preachy" film can steer larger audiences away — and that's not The Host. Instead, Meyer's adaptation takes a stab at considering, challenging, and working out Mormon ideas. "It's all about questions, not answers, and Mormonism is a religion that — in terms of structure — tends to create a lot of questioning people," Givens says. "It also creates a lot of very conformist people, too, don't get me wrong. That's just a tension that exists within the community."
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A speculation-friendly religion is bound to divide, both between sects of believers and those on the outside looking in. As a successful Mormon figure, Meyer has come under predictable heat, and Givens says he knows just as many Mormons who are proud of Meyer's success as there are naysayers of her work. He says that the "Mormon depiction" in Twilight has caused issues with the perception of members of the faith, painting them as "sex-obsessed." On the other end of the spectrum is scrutiny over Meyer's ability to be a progressive fiction writer and commit to her faith. In a recent article, Brooks defended Meyer's ability to be a Mormon feminist, equating her with Harriet Beecher Stowe in her ability to employ saccharine drama and still tell deeply involved, human stories. Add that all to the science fiction of The Host and you have a layered individual that seems to exemplify what Mormonism strives to be about.
For Givens, sci-fi ruminations like The Host, that wrestle with the oldest ideas of Latter-day Saints, don't interfere with the ability to take Mormon doctrine seriously. To him, a work like The Host can live side by side with The Book of Mormon. "I think that the historical claims of the religion are actually very important," he says. "I understand that there are a lot of Mormons who, for example, would like to value and treasure The Book of Mormon as a purely spiritual document without actually believing the stories it tells or the idea that there were really gold plates that Joseph Smith translated. I respect that, but that's just not my position. And, for me at least, I don't think that the sci-fi causes problems on that level."
Givens also acknowledges the tension created by the difficulty Mormonism faces when being accepted by modern thought. But he doesn't believe that a movie like The Host pulls the carpet from under believers. Meyer may try to keep her faith-related questions out of the publicity circle, but even if her work is perceived by audiences as religiously rooted, introducing the questioning can be positive. "It's hard to carve out a kind of literal idea of the sacred in this current culture, and I think that's also a tension that you see Mormon authors working out in their work," he says. "So, for me at least, I think the tension just spurs more creativity and art, rather than necessarily detracting from the faith."
For Brooks, Meyer spins stories from Mormon faith with the right sensibilities: part traditional, part imaginative. "One of the defining features of Mormon culture is that we are exceptionally pragmatic," she says. "This comes from our roots in the rural west and our penchant for large families. At the same time, we are a people with an extremely rich speculative theology. To live with that balance is to be a Mormon."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Open Road]
Additional reporting by Jordan Hoffman
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