In a rare big budget franchise appearance, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives some gravitas and nuance to the “Hunger Games” series.
This is a little embarrassing – I’m pretty sure The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was my first exposure to Philip Seymour Hoffman. As I’ve said before, he didn’t appear in many blockbusters, and when I was fifteen (watching this Hunger Games sequel on the largest screen I could find), well, I watched a lot of blockbusters. But on second look, my embarrassment isn’t warranted. Catching Fire, and Hoffman’s work in it, is far better than I’d remembered.
Perhaps you’ve forgotten the progression of the 2010s’ premiere dystopian young adult quadrilogy. In spring of 2012, the first Hunger Games burst into theaters, verifying Jennifer Lawrence as a bonafide movie star, and making far more money than anyone anticipated (doubling its relatively modest budget in its opening weekend). Here’s the thing though: that first movie is borderline bad. Yes, it’s got a great set-up and a strong cast, but the grey, shaky-cam cinematography is blisteringly ugly from the very first frame.
Worse, The Hunger Games had almost no interest in the bigger ideas at its seams. In this post-apocalyptic future, twenty-four teenagers fight to the death on live television. The evil annual ritual asserts the power of “The Capitol” over the twelve districts of Panem – everyone in the arena, even the eventual victor, is a victim of their totalitarian society. To win, Katniss (Lawrence) befriends fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutchinson), and “pretends” to fall in love with him. In the murder tournament’s final moments, the Capitol attempts to turn the pair against each other, but Katniss and Peeta both threaten to eat poison berries, leaving the gamemakers with no winner. The puppeteers blink. Both survive.
Catching Fire picks up here. Katniss’ act of rebellion was broadcast across her entire country. Was it a mad move from an adolescent in love, or a true act of defiance against their oppressors? She’s visited by series big bad President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who tells her that Panem is now on the verge of a bloody civil war. If Katniss wants to avoid catastrophic conflict, she must convince the nation that her actions came from crazed romance, not blatant contempt for her horrible rulers.
The franchise, adapted from a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, is obsessed with this apparent dichotomy between the genuine and performance. These are action pictures too – how does experiencing and perpetrating violence further blur authenticity? How much violence can be justified on the quest to create a more just world, for either individual or collective? The workmanlike direction of the first Hunger Games meant that the film couldn’t effectively pose these questions. Catching Fire actually explores its themes.
Behind-the-scenes, Francis Lawrence replaced Gary Ross in the director’s chair (he’d helm the rest of the series, and work with Lawrence again on the spy thriller Red Sparrow). Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) was brought on to punch up the script. It all pays off. Some actual color is allowed to enter the frame. We get a better sense of Katniss’ internal struggle, and the psychological toll of playing to the camera. It’s still very dour, but it means so much more.
Katniss and Peeta’s “victory tour” ends in The Capitol, where they’re taken to an opulent party and introduced to Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the new head gamemaker. It’s implied that Plutarch had retired from designing sadistic death scenarios, but now – inexplicably – he’s back in charge of The Hunger Games. Hoffman’s especially dry in this introductory scene, but he’s not phoning it in. Dialogue has never been these movies’ strength, but Hoffman underplays and sells lines like “If you abandon your moral judgment, it can be fun” and “Maybe it was you who inspired me to come back.”
His tone is blunt – seemingly sincerely – while signaling that he might be on Katniss’ side. The scene lasts less than a minute, but it’s significant considering the film spends much of Hoffman’s screen-time trying to convince us he’s a villain. We then see him conspiring with Snow to eliminate Katniss without making her a martyr: for the seventy-fifth Hunger Games, the one Plutarch’s directing, the tributes will all be prior winners. It’s a slick way to set up a set-piece filled climax.
The character makes sense because of the way the actor brings him to life; by 2013, Philip Seymour Hoffman knew how to do this better than just about anyone else.
Little do the viewers know, for these games, the tributes we care about aren’t fighting to win – they’re fighting to break out of their cage. Plutarch has been pretending too: he’s part of a rebel plot to free Katniss, start the revolution, and destroy The Capitol. Like Katniss, we’re in the dark about this until the very end, so for most of the movie Hoffman’s performance must be ambiguous while remaining coherent.
He’s not playing an angel: Plutarch’s clearly willing to make some major sacrifices to advance his endgame. Yet he’s also very intelligent, and risking his own life for that same greater good. In his last scene, Hoffman brings a gravitas that clears up any uncertainty around his allegiances. These movies are more concerned with Katniss’ agency, the weight on her shoulders as an unforeseen symbol, than the people conspiring and designing the games – so Plutarch’s presence is minimal. But the character makes sense because of the way the actor brings him to life; by 2013, Philip Seymour Hoffman knew how to do this better than just about anyone else.
Still, Catching Fire can’t completely transcend its limitations. For one thing, it’s two hours and twenty-six minutes. Most of the ensemble is great, but Josh Hutchinson is an obvious weak link. Its obligations as a blockbuster occasionally get in the way of what actually makes the movie engaging. Then again, in a decade full of hundred-million-dollar stinkers, Catching Fire isn’t just the peak of its franchise, but a compelling work in its own right. That’s probably why P.S.H. showed up in first place.