Sunday, December 8, 2013

Catching Fire -- hope, celebrities and enemies

Director: Francis Lawrence, 2013 (PG-13)

After last year’s smash hit, The Hunger Games, the second installment comes along bigger and better. A new director, stronger supporting characters, and a leading lady who is really a girl on fire, after winning an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, make this a film not just catching fire, but burning up!

A year on, Catching Fire picks up right where The Hunger Games left off. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), victors of the prior games, are living a lie in District 12. She experiences the after-effects of the brutal violence of the arena: PTSD. We see this in an early scene when her hunting arrow seems to enter a person, not a turkey.

Katniss still loves Gale (Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor’s Chris Hemsworth), but the dystopian world of Panem wants to believe she loves Peeta, the object of her “kiss” in the cave last time. But the creepy and tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sends them off on a victory tour, accompanied, of course, by handlers boozy Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and effervescent Effie (Elizabeth Banks).

As the two victors take the microphone at District 11, they dispose of the pre-scripted speeches and speak from their hearts, paying tribute to the two young lives lost. In doing so, they gain respect from the crowd, but their eyes are opened to the extreme measures that Snow will take to quell any potential revolution. With such harm that emerges to all who deviate even with a three-finger salute, Katniss and Peeta realize they have a role to play, one that has life or death consequences to those around them, even to those they love.

With the 75th Games just around the corner, Snow’s eyes are opened too. In the first movie he said that people need fear and hope, but not too much hope. Here he recants that idea. In talking to his new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt), he declares: “Fear does not work as long as they have hope.” Hope must disappear. No longer does it have a place in Panem.

Hope, however, remains fundamental to life on earth (if not in Panem). It keeps us going when all else would hold us back. It is one of the three greatest virtues, faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13: 13). God offers true hope to us through the gospel (Col. 1:23), a hope that centers on Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:19). This life may lead us into circus games, or battlefield arenas, but God’s hope looks to the glory of the future (Col. 1:27). With that as a guiding light, we can bear up even in the midst of dystopian despair.

Given that the 75th hunger games is the third “Quarter Quell”, President Snow decides to alter the rules. The reaping will occur from prior victors, thereby ensuring that Katniss will enter the arena once more. In this way, she finds herself in the crosshairs of the Capitol as well as seasoned killers.

Back once more in this stellar cast are Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the over-excited host of all the shows, Toby Jones as jis co-host, and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ dresser. Seymour Hoffman makes the most of his limited scenes. And there are some new characters, including Beetee (Jeffret Wright), Johanna (Jena Malone) and Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair). They all give believable performances that raise the acting a notch. But Lawrence steals the show, acting at the top of her game!

The end of the first act leaves the victors once again in the Capitol, surrounded by vapid fashion-followers. Haymitch tells Katniss, “From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.” When she and Peeta enter the grand ball, at which they are the premier guests, over-dressed and over-made up characters offer them a drink that will cause them to purge their bulging bellies so they can stuff themselves further. Then, dancing with Plutarch, he tells Katniss that is she suspends her moral judgment she might even have some fun.

Here is a major commentary on today’s predominance on entertainment culture and celebrities. Everyone watches Katniss and Peeta wherever they go. And they are expected to perform, even though this performance is an act for the cameras. We want to see our favorite celebrities, and savor the juicy gossip about the minutia of their lives, as if it would have an iota of an effect on our own.

We think our lives are so humdrum we must live vicariously through others, whether they are the stars of the latest Hollywood hits, the celebrity contestants of reality TV (our version of the arena), or the royalty of old-style Europe. But our lives do have meaning. We were made to love God and serve him (Deut. 11:13). Our real vicarious living is through Jesus, whose vicarious atonement was for us, when he carried our sins in his painful death on the cross (Heb. 2:17). We can enjoy entertainment, but must not be ruled by it. We must place limits on its hold over society. We must lift our three-fingered salute and refuse to becomes gluttons to its insidious draw.

Once the victors enter the new arena, one focused on a watery environment cut into twelve sectors (“tick-tock”), the film moves into action genre. Allegiances are formed, vicious baboons appear, tributes are killed. Once more the brutality takes center stage. But once more Haymitch offers Katniss sage advice, “Remember who the real enemy is.”

This advice is relevant for us, too. Too often we can get caught up in the immediate, seeing troubles and tribulations before us and seeing the human hand involved. But as followers of Jesus, our real enemy is not human beings, even if they are involved. The real enemy is the devil (1 Pet. 5:8). He wants to hurt God and targets humanity, both Christian and non-Christian, to do so. He comes to “steal and kill and destroy” (Jn. 10:10).  Each person he prevents from hearing and accepting the gospel is another person absent from heaven, and a notch in his gun. Each Christian he can cause to sin or to shrink in their faith, is another person who loves God less. We may not see him physically but that does not lessen his reality or his danger. He is our real enemy

In the (hunger) games of real life, we would love the odds to be ever in our favor. But knowing the brutality and ferocity of our real enemy, we must recognize we have no control over these odds. Unlike President Snow, we do remain pawns in the hands on the game board. Yet we know the true ruler. We have read the true script and know how history ends. The odds will be ever in our eternal favor.

Catching Fire ends abruptly, leaving as good entertainment should: on a cliff-hanger. As a middle movie of three (actually four), we know this is likely to happen even as we enter the cineplex. But the film pulls it off remarkably well, with a final scene that is as stark and sudden as a Snow execution. But that only leaves us eager for more. The holiday season of 2014 will provide more entertainment when Mockingjay emerges. Will we be ready for this, emotionally and philosophically? That depends on how we have allowed Suzanne Collins’ books and these films to attack our in-built biases and prejudices.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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