Sunday, December 15, 2013

Double Feature Review: Gravity and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

It's been quite awhile since I did one of these, and after I checked out a couple of newer films recently I thought it might be a good time to bring it back. So for the handful of people likely to stumble across this, here are my thoughts on these big budget blockbusters.


Synopsis: Two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) struggle to survive after an accident leaves them marooned in orbit above Earth.

The bad news first: Though he capped them with a post insisting that he enjoyed the movie, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out several scientific errors in the movie. Some of them are more noticeable than others. The characters are able to cover some pretty impressive distances given their limited amounts of fuel and oxygen, a feature perhaps explained away by the unrealistic way the film crowds a number of pieces of outer space real estate so close together. Sandra Bullock's character is a mission specialist and doctor, but for some reason she's popping the hood on the Hubble Telescope.

And even though the characters are mostly capable and intelligent, there are a few occasions where you have to shake your head at a particularly idiotic move. A few of the mishaps are quite easily avoidable, such as an attempt to fly a Soyuz a few moments after the astronauts note how its parachute has deployed and gotten tangled up in the International Space Station.

The good stuff: Anyone recommending this movie is always going to start by saying how visually stunning it is, and that you should see it on the big screen. It's not for some gimmicky reason like all the hype over Avatar; it's because it does a great job with its space environment, mixing the beauty of the scenery with the horror of the ongoing destruction going on around the characters. It's full of irresistable Easter eggs, inviting you to figure out which part of the planet you're floating over and packing the space stations with drifting materials ranging from hand strengtheners to Velcro-bottomed chess pieces.

The plot is pretty basic, but it works on a visceral level and keeps the story at a compact hour and a half. The movie manages to incorporate a number of fears, ranging from claustrophobia to isolation, to make for quite an unnerving narrative. It wisely chooses to avoid any Hollywood sound effects while in orbit, heightening the realism of the destruction as well as the effect of the characters' panic. Gravity appeals to astronomy nerds by bringing in everything from the Hubble to a not-yet-existent Chinese space station, then breaks our collective hearts by smashing them all to bits. The actors are charged with portraying a spectrum ranging from terrified to triumphant, and they pull it off marvelously.

Yet by the end the movie is, plain and simple, fun. It's a hell of an adventure, to paraphrase Bullock's character.

Verdict: Is it still in the theaters? Spend the extra money and go see it. But it's still well worth your time to watch it later.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Synopsis: The second movie in this trilogy finds Katniss Everdeen at odds with her totalitarian government after her Hunger Games victory inadvertently makes her a symbol of rebellion.

The bad news first: There are pretty much two ways to adapt a book into a movie. You can base the plot loosely on the source material, making something that tells the same story but in a unique way. Or you can keep it as close to the original as possible, which sometimes means you have to be familiar with the work to fully understand the film. Catching Fire is more in the second vein, and unfortunately some plot elements are mostly overlooked. District 13, a crucial point of the third and final book, is barely mentioned at all.

Other problems are carried over from the source material. In both, the love triangle between Katniss, her fellow victor Peeta, and her hunting companion Gale starts off as a major issue. Katniss and Peeta are charged with maintaining a facade of being head over heels in love as a way of staving off an uprising, but the importance quickly fades to a background issue. It's handled somewhat more clumsily in the movie, where Katniss' declaration that she doesn't have time for romance is undermined by a few scenes where she smooches whichever boy happens to strike her fancy at the moment. Like the book, the Hunger Games in the second half are the weaker part of the story, taking the narrative in a somewhat tangential direction.

For the most part, the acting belongs in the next section. There's one very notable exception, however. The scene where Katniss' district is taken over by harsher guards works well right up until the brutal new commander opens his mouth. He chews the scenery with such a ridiculously over-the-top gruff voice that I almost expect him to take over as the butt of all the jokes that were aimed at Christian Bale for his Batman dialect.

The good stuff: Catching Fire's strength lies in its actors. Most of the cast does an excellent job, but in particular credit is due to Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lawrence, Jena Malone, and Woody Harrelson. Banks, in what will probably be her last major appearance as District 12's prim and proper Capitol representative Effie Trinket, adds a healthy dose of humanity to the character. Lawrence lets us see just what kind of pressure Katniss is under, doing a masterful job in a scene where she pays tribute to a deceased ally of the Games. Malone is clearly having a ball playing Johanna, the defiant tribute from District 7. And Harrelson also brings more depth to the drunken former victor Haymitch, making him both an intelligent and grudgingly compassionate central figure.

The movie also does a good job with its scenery, ranging from the splendor of the Capitol to the squalor of the districts kept under its thumb. The American Idol-esque TV sets and hosts offer a somewhat obvious but still amusing parody of reality programming. In fact, the glimmers of hope and defiance in this film allow it to have more fun than its predecessor. Even with its naturally bleak undertones, Catching Fire has some pretty hilarious scenes.

The film, in general, does a much better job than its predecessor of being of being subtle and thought-provoking as well. A single line about the responsibilities of victors allows the audience to understand why Haymitch relies on alcohol so much. A quick shake of the head delivers a crystal-clear message. Overall, the writers have done a good job of adapting a complex, somewhat disjointed novel.

Verdict: Reading the book is practically a prerequisite, but excellent actors and directing make this worth a visit.

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