Young women and the dystopian future on film: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire and How I Live Now

December 8, 2013

It seems to be some sort of obscure Hollywood law:  by some strange turn of our collective unconscious, two films with virtually identical themes are released at the same time.

The latest proof of this theorem is the almost simultaneous openings of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “How I Live Now”, both of them futuristic dystopian films with reluctant female heroes.

This is not a case of shared screenwriter dreams, as I wrote a year ago, comparing “The Sessions” and “The Intouchables”, as well as eight other “paired” films. Both of these new films arise from popular books – “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (published 2009), and “How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff (published 2004).  Both are “young adult novels” and take a traditional male-style action story, turning it into one aimed at young women.

I adored this second film of “The Hunger Games” (Jennifer Lawrence is a true star and I look forward to following her career for years to come), although “Catching Fire” did not have the same elements of surprise that the first film had.  It’s a crowd-pleaser and I am not surprised at its worldwide success (see below).

Of the two books, Rosoff’s is much better literature (it won a swag of awards).  But in many ways, the film version of “How I Live Now” is actually a superior movie to Hunger Games 2.  Dramatically, it is understated, and use of “off-screen action” makes for a chilling drama.

The plot in brief: Daisy, a young American woman (played by Saoirse Ronan) travels to Britain to spend the summer with her aunt and first cousins.  Her mother is dead, and she is increasingly estranged from her father, who has remarried and has a new child.  Her arrival at the British airport is filled with scenes of high security – a bit like all major airports now, but just more so, more tense, more guns.  Young Daisy seems unaware of all of this, and is picked up by one of her young cousins, who parks illegally outside the airport (an indication of things to come).  When she arrives are the country house, she finds her cousins living a carefree life while their mother (the aunt) is mostly away travelling on what appears to be international relations peace business.  Many small things foreshadow something big coming, but Daisy – slowly falling in love with her oldest cousin (George Mackay) – misses all the cues.

One day, when the cousins are all swimming while their mother/aunt is travelling, they experience what turns out to be a nuclear blast at London many miles away.  And here is where the film truly comes into its own – we do not see the devastation of “tens or hundreds of thousands”, but we see the fierce wind, hear the dull but immense blast and then watch the gray dust.  After a short delay, despite their mother’s absence, the cousins regain their good humour … until the electricity fails and the army comes to round them up and move them out, as battles are soon to be fought in the area.  Who is the enemy?  What is the war about?  We never know.  Remember, it’s all from Daisy’s 17 year old point of view, so what is missing is equally important as what is there.

And a note to fans of the book: the film does not include the final scenes of the book, which does change the dramatic arc, leaving it much more fluid and much less settled.  Probably a good narrative choice, but I was looking forward to the epilogue.

At its best, “How I Live Now” approaches the intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece “The Road”. (Even now, almost four years later, both the book and the film – directed by John Hillcoat – still haunt me.)  It is alternately creepy, scary and thrilling.  What a shame that fewer than 3600 people have seen “How I Live Now” here in Australia – compared to almost 2.5 million who have seen “Hunger Games 2”.

In Australia, after two weeks of release, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had grossed a whopping Aus$24,814,266 and was still sitting in the number one box office position, playing in 578 cinemas.  By contrast, in its first week of Australian release, “How I Live Now” did not even crack the top 20 in box office – meaning that it grossed less than Aus$36,000 that week.  As of Monday 9 December, it was only playing in a few scattered cinemas around Australia at odd hours.  I could have predicted that result:  the evening session I attended at Event Cinemas Macquarie Centre had five (yes, five) patrons, including me.  By contrast, “Hunger Games” was packed.

Internationally, “The Hunger Games” set a new Thanksgiving weekend box office record in North America, and has already grossed almost US$600 million worldwide.  “How I Live Now” has grossed $60,000 in North America, and a modest – but much better – $746,000 in the United Kingdom.

There is no simple explanation for why “Hunger Games” is so popular and “How I Live Now” so forgotten.  Part of it is production budgets (sure Hunger Games is much bigger), part marketing budgets, part stardom (Lawrence), part Hollywood film versus British film, and part what is sometimes called “The Matthew Effect” – the rich get richer, and the differences between “good” and “great” can be enormous (also see my favourite author Malcolm Gladwell).

It’s a popular culture mystery not easily explained.  Seek out the film of “How I Live Now” and see what you think.  Here’s the official trailer (viewed by at least ten times more people than who have seen the film):

And an image from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire:

Hunger Games catching fire

Superman Man of Steel – a visceral experience

July 1, 2013

Directed by Zack Snyder, produced by Christopher Nolan, and scripted by David S. Goyer

What an odd, entertaining, loud and engaging ride the new Superman “Man of Steel” film is.  It’s such a visceral experience that in the final third I accidentally bit the inside of my cheek, resulting in an unusual amount of blood in my mouth.  THAT’s how distracting this film can be:  you gotta see this on in a large cinema with good sound; this is not iPhone or iPad stuff.  I saw it at Sydney’s “Event” cinema Macquarie Centre at an 8.15pm Sunday session with an audience about 50% full.

“Man of Steel” is also a truly odd combination of Christian religious fervour and post September 11th disaster.  This Superman is an obvious stand-in for Jesus:  there are too many explicit references to his saving mankind and not being understood.  And the scenes of destruction of Manhattan in New York City consciously imitate the destructive events of September 11th 2001.  It’s not quite clear what the film-makers are trying to achieve here; is the villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) somehow being equated with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists?  Must the destruction of New York City be so total?  Given that a number of high-rise buildings in the final scene are completely destroyed (imitating how the Twin Towers fell) and many others sustained tremendous damage, the total loss of life must have been in the tens of thousands.  Why is there no mention of this, no dead civilian bodies?  So many unanswered questions – the film ends on a note of triumph, but yet it is tragedy.  Here we are, almost 12 years later, and the constraints are now removed:  it appears that we can create disaster films in Manhattan that are more than reminiscent of September 11th.  Enough time appears to have passed, at least in the minds of Hollywood film.

“Man of Steel” carries the weight of many themes:  genocide (barely averted), nationalism (partially thwarted), romance (mostly chaste, except for that one kiss between Superman and Lois Lane), parental responsibility (well and truly fulfilled), the limits of US military power (clear to all to see) and personal destiny (that’s what it’s all about).  There’s even a bit of environmental sustainability.  A bit.

This film works in part because some of the acting is excellent, particularly those playing the two sets of parents of “Cal/Clark Kent” (Superman):  Russell Crowe (as Jor-El, the Kryptonian father) brings an extraordinary gravitas (Russell, what can’t you do?) and Kevin Costner (as Jonathan Kent, the earthly adoptive dad) is great.  The scene where Costner’s character dies is one of the great recent movie death scenes.  I will refrain from describing it in detail so as to maintain the mystery.  But it is special.  And Diane Lane as the earthly mom is also great, perfectly cast as the Kansas farmwoman.  Henry Cavill as Superman himself looks the part and does a credible job, especially when he is wearing a beard “in disguise”; when clean-shaven he is just a bit TOO clean.  But he is sufficient.  Lois Lane (Amy Adams) helps a lot.

The new movie paradigm: viruses

September 20, 2011

If two recent movies are any indication, there is a new movie paradigm emerging:  the growth and spread of viruses.  This by no means new – think Adromeda Strain (1971), Carriers (2009), Outbreak (1995), 28 Days Later (2002), Cabin Fever (2002), I Am Legend (2007) and Quarantine (2008).

Contagion has topped the US box office and follows the release a short while ago Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which (ALERT: plot giveaway about to come – do not continue reading if you have not seen the film) ends with a fabulous sequence showing how humanity is about to die by a man-made virus that makes apes “super-human” and kills humans.

But why is this happening now?  Jeanine Stein’s September 9th article in the Los Angeles Times investigates this phenomenon (I certainly am not the only person to notice it) and observes that:

We use killer virus movies to channel our worries about jobs, gas prices and the economy. But we’ve had some recent up close and personal brushes with pandemics–sure, they haven’t annihilated humanity, but people have died. That … makes it all the more real to moviegoers.

It’s partly the “September 11th effect” (yet another indication of how that event has lodged itself in our subconscious in ways still being played out in the cultural realm) and partly the post-AIDS/HIV era (if it is possible to term it that way).

Some good links – and and