Sunday, November 22, 2015

Katniss Everdeen dethrones James Bond at the U.S. box office

Two weeks ago, "SPECTRE" knocked "The Martian" out of number one at the U.S. box office.  This week, it was Katniss Everdeen's turn to assassinate James Bond as "The Hunger Games" Mockingjay-Part 2" came in first, handily outpacing "SPECTRE."  Even in victory, the news was not all good as Daily Variety via Reuters reported earlier today that 'Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2' debuts to franchise-low $101 million.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" dominated the weekend box office with the final film in the science-fiction franchise debuting to $101 million.

That ranks as the year's fifth biggest opening, but it wasn't as big a sendoff for Katniss Everdeen and her fellow revolutionaries as some had predicted.

The massive bow falls short of tracking that projected the picture would top $120 million in its initial weekend in theaters. It also represents a low for the series, falling far short of the $158.1 million high-water mark established by 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." It's a sign, perhaps, that interest in the dystopian world of Panem has crested.
The cresting of the youth dystopia wave is a topic I'll explore over the jump, along with other aspects of the series' legacy.  Those will come after the rest of the box office report.
The weakness of the new films allowed holdovers "Spectre" and "The Peanuts Movie" to pad their box office results. The latest Bond adventure added $14.6 million to its $153.7 million domestic haul, nabbing second place on the charts. "The Peanuts Movie" finished third, picking up $12.8 million to push its stated total to $98.9 million.
The "new films" mentioned were "The Night Before," which earned $10.1 million to come in fourth and "The Secret in Their Eyes," which grossed $6.6 million to eke out fifth place.  That last film may do better at the awards shows than the theaters, along with other films geared to an older audience.  Look for those to make their money on cable and streaming services.

Follow over the jump for reviews of the final installment of "The Hunger Games" from Vox and io9.

io9 minced no words when it declared They Saved The Most Brutal Hunger Games Movie For Last.
The Hunger Games book and movie series has always been about resistance, and particularly about using the machinery and iconography of the oppressor to fight back. Katniss Everdeen is a creation of a violent, manipulative system, but she turns all of its symbolism against it. And in the final movie, Mockingjay Part 2, she turns the tables, at immense, horrifying cost.
Mockingjay Part 2 is the most brutal of all the Hunger Games movies, and in a few places it actually manages to outdo the books in sheer ugliness (partly because reading about nastiness is different than watching it.) It’s not so much the big bloody action sequences, but the small intimate moments, that make you feel the full weight of how awful all of this has been for Katniss, Peeta and the others.
That watching cruelty and violence instead of reading about it is one of the main reasons my wife does not enjoy the movies.  The medium makes them too graphic and unavoidable for her; she can tune them out when she reads, as she can just minimize imagining them.

Back to the review.
Much like Part 1, this movie makes some fascinating stylistic choices, that force you to confront the personal consequences of violence and violation. And that, in turn, makes you ask what kind of government, what kind of leaders, would use violent games and torturous mind control as crucial elements of its propaganda strategy. The genius of Mockingjay Part 2 is that we get enough glimpses of that thought process, how people could decide that such things are a good idea, to start understanding it—and that’s perhaps the most intense shock of all.
Those are good questions to ask, and make the series as relevant as ever even as the themes of the first two books and movies recede, as Vox points out in The Hunger Games' inevitable end, explained.
The main theme of The Hunger Games, the first book in the trilogy, concerns class warfare. All the world building and lore creation is wrapped around the idea of inequality and how it's capable and powerful enough to leach every last drop of humanity from people. The rich inhabitants of the Capitol use their wealth to establish subservience from neighboring districts, subservience so strong that the poor kill one another for sport. This continues for the next book and a half.

Collins's fascination with inequality makes perfect sense when you take note of when the books were written and published. The first novel in the trilogy came out in 2008, when the recession had a firm grip on the United States — middle-class families were hit devastatingly hard, and many people's retirement savings disintegrated. The next two books were published in 2009 and 2010, respectively — years in which the unemployment rate hovered around 10 percent (it's now down to 5 percent). And the first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012 — an election year in which inequality and wealth distribution (see: Mitt Romney's 47 percent comments) were major talking points. These factors made The Hunger Games' message more pertinent, more urgent.

Since the books debuted in 2008, the economy has stabilized and the unemployment rate has dropped. This doesn't mean American adults have entirely forgotten how bad things were, or that there aren't people who are still recovering from the financial collapse. But the argument around inequality is being framed in a different context; taxes are still an issue, but inequality is just one of many topics, ranging from immigration to issues of gender and race, that are part of the current political conversation.

The Hunger Games movies and books still offer plenty of commentary on feminism, violence, and trauma — important topics that are currently present in our national dialogue — but none of those subjects is as prickly or pronounced in the franchise's story as its treatment of class warfare.
In addition to "feminism, violence, and trauma," io9's review examined propaganda and its ability to manipulate.
The obvious difference between Mockingjay Part 2 and the other three movies is in the fact that Katniss is stepping up and taking control of her own destiny in a way that she never has previously. She’s come a long way from the first movie, where she manipulates a no-win scenario purely due to a willingness to sacrifice everything. Now, she’s becoming more adept at pulling other people’s strings, instead of dancing as other people yank on hers.

But there’s also another difference between this film and the others—the ever-present Greek chorus of propaganda and media manipulation is still there, but it’s used much more sparingly and strategically. In the first three movies, there was a constant tension between the Katniss we know as a person, and the image of Katniss that appears on giant video screens—the “real” Katniss and her distorted and enlarged image were in dialogue with each other, and Katniss tried (often in vain) to control how she’s portrayed by the machine.

In this last film, the notion of Katniss as propaganda vehicle is as much a part of the story as ever—but because of some of the events of the film, we don’t see her actions reflected through the celebrity fish-eye lens nearly as much as in the past. (Poor old Caesar Flickerman only gets a couple of appearances, in fact.) There’s still dueling propaganda, but we pretty much only see Katniss the person, not Katniss-as-image.

Which makes it interesting that this is the film in which Katniss finally owns her legend.
Vox's review of the movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is an impressively grim mess, captures this point when it declares "Director Francis Lawrence brilliantly conveys the film's politics through visuals" one of the best parts of the film.
Francis Lawrence (no relation to the star) has some issues (see below), but in general he's proved to be just the visual stylist the Hunger Games franchise needed. In particular, he shows a relish for depicting the series' cyclical oppression via deftly chosen images.

In particular, there's one moment around the film's midpoint where the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) addresses his nation after he believes Katniss has been killed. (She's still alive.) As he's speaking, however, his feed is overridden, mid-sentence, by that of rebel president Coin (Julianne Moore), who offers her own message about what Katniss's death means to the nation.

For just an instant, the director pulls back to show us Moore's face projected just over Sutherland's, as he watches on TV, unable to do anything about the woman who's just interrupted him. It's a brilliant image, both for how it plays visually and for how it expresses part of the series' subtext without beating viewers over the head: All who seek power can be corrupted by it. Don't assume anyone has your best interests in mind.
io9 returned to "violence and trauma" in its review.
The other thread, as I mentioned earlier, is the notion of trauma and recovery—and the notion that you never really recover 100 percent. These things are always with you, and “victor” is really a fancy word for “survivor.” This time around, everybody is crushed under a massive burden of grief and unprocessed horror, and it makes for a curiously muted “final battle” storyline. In a way that feels incredibly real and believable. There’s no “let’s blow this thing and go home” whooping here, and the fog of war dovetails with the mental exhaustion of too-long-at-war soldiers.
The Vox reviews summarized this theme as "The movie is a grim slog through the horrors of war and PTSD" a good part of the film.
The plot of this movie, such as it is, involves the slow slog of the rebel forces through the oppressive Capitol, toward the mansion of the despotic ruler of the future dystopia known as Panem. As the rebels (who include our heroes) get closer to their goal, more and more death rains upon them, even as these battles are repackaged as reality show entertainment, complete with the framing provided to the murderous Hunger Games that give the series its title.

The point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It's repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the face of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), who spends almost the entire first half of the movie in a state of shell-shocked horror, wandering from one encounter to the next, after a former trusted compatriot tried to kill her. It's like she's been hollowed out and propped up, transformed into a symbol more than a person.
And so this review comes full circle to the use of propaganda and manipulation.  That means it's a good time to tie it up with the conclusions of the two articles from Vox.  First, the final passage from the review of the movie.
The very fact that The Hunger Games exists — much less became a major film franchise! — goes against so much of what we understand about what audiences want to see nowadays. Sure, it's based on a series of young adult novels, but it digs deeper into the darker sides of the human condition than most other successful YA movies. It's grim throughout, and by the end it's largely abandoned the typical blockbuster format to focus on tiny, interpersonal scenes about how hard it is to live in times of war.

Plus, the storytelling is bolder and braver than it gets credit for. Mockingjay — Part 2 starts, essentially, in the middle of a scene (as Katniss confronts the aftermath of Part 1's cliffhanger ending), and it concludes on a note of semi-closure but nowhere near a note of healing. There are no big victories, and the only time Katniss makes an actual choice or has any agency, she essentially makes an argument for outright anarchy.

I don't know why, precisely, this series caught on, but I'm glad it did. Imperfect as it is, there's never been anything quite like The Hunger Games, and all attempts to copy it have failed to replicate its dark, spiny soul.
Vox's explanation attempts to answer the implied question in the review and gives the series a fitting send-off by describing its legacy.
Katniss and everything she stands for — independence, ferocity, kicking ass — are now pop culture fixtures. This girl from District 12 and her coming-of-age story are part of the pantheon, joining legends like Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield, and Peter Parker.

This is significant. The success of The Hunger Games has changed the way movie executives think about young adult and female audiences. Its huge box office draw shattered the myopic myth that no one would want to watch an action movie with a female lead (though it still exists in some form today; just look at the delays in getting Marvel's Captain Marvel movie onto the big screen).

The Hunger Games franchise proved that girls and women should be taken seriously as consumers of culture and entertainment. The mania, the obsessions, the sprawling reach of the fandom — it was a powerful thing. Check that, it is a powerful thing.

As it comes to a close, the Hunger Games franchise isn't entering its final opening weekend at the box office with the same kind of hype it once enjoyed. But there will be no forgetting its impact.
Thus the entire post closes yet another circle by returning back to the hype and box office.  I like closing circles, so I'll let Vox have the last word.

1 comment:

  1. The Champaign-Urbana local newspaper, trusted by millions? That's so laughable, fellow James Bond fan, that I'll let your spam stay up just for the entertainment value.