The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
In the early ’00s, you couldn’t just go out and find a copy of Battle Royale, the Japanese film that had come out in 2000. You had to actively seek it out, and if you found it, you felt a bit like you were committing a crime. Battle Royale tells the story of a group of teenagers sent to an isolated island and forced to murder each other. A repressive dystopian regime has decreed that only one survivor will be allowed to walk away. Some of the kids resist. Some enthusiastically embrace the assignment. A girl and a boy struggle heroically to keep each other alive and to find a way out of their no-win situation. At the time, no American distributor would touch Battle Royale. It was too fucked up.
Sometime around 2003, I rented a bootleg VHS copy of the film from my local cool video store, and the mere act of watching it felt illicit. A decade later, the premise of Battle Royale became the basis for a massively successful series of PG-13 American blockbusters. In 2013, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second film in that series, became the year’s highest-grossing movie at the domestic box office. Maybe Battle Royale wasn’t that fucked up after all, or maybe we changed our definition of what’s too fucked up.
Suzanne Collins has said that she’d never heard of Battle Royale, the movie or the 1999 Japanese novel on which it was based, until after she turned in her 2008 novel The Hunger Games to her publisher. Maybe there was just something in the water around the turn of the millennium. Maybe reality-TV competition spectacles, which took off in Japan long before they came to the U.S., inspired similar ideas in both Collins and Battle Royale author Kōshun Takami. Whether she intended to do it, though, Collins found a way to present the inherently transgressive concept of Battle Royale to teenage America.
Her timing was perfect. A year before Collins had published The Hunger Games, J.K. Rowling had finished up her Harry Potter series, and the massively successful Potter films were in full swing. The kids who’d grown up reading Potter were ready to move on to darker fare. Around the same time the Potter series wrapped up, Stephanie Meyer also finished publishing her Twilight novels, which conflated teen horniness with vampires and werewolves. The first Twilight movie came to theaters a couple of months after the publication of The Hunger Games, and it became a teenage cultural phenomenon, exploding in ways that no adult had predicted. Within six months, Collins had sold the film rights to The Hunger Games.
Just like Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins told the story of a young girl, in extreme life-or-death circumstances, drawn to two different boys and forced to choose between them. But Collins was always clear that her Hunger Games books weren’t an allegory for teenage sexuality. They were about war. Collins had come up writing for kids’ TV—she’d been the head writer on something called Clifford’s Puppy Days—but she’d also grown up hearing stories from her Vietnam-veteran father. In The Hunger Games, there’s none of the world-consuming horniness of Twilight. All the romantic scenes are perfunctory and unsatisfying, as if by design. Instead, the emphasis was on one girl’s struggle to survive and to protect her family in a world where everything was rigged against her.
The first Hunger Games movie came out in the spring of 2012, just before the summer of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. It grossed more than $400 million in North America—just slightly less than the Batman movie and way more than the final Twilight film, which came out later that year. The Hunger Games wasn’t Battle Royale. Pleasantville director Gary Ross couldn’t film grisly scenes of children murdering each other and still get the requisite potential-blockbuster PG-13 rating, so he resorted to choppy editing and Bourne-style shaky-cam whenever it was time for kids to start dying. It was messy. But Ross’ adaptation still effectively communicated the idea of an entire society set up to watch poor kids kill each other for the entertainment of the ruling class. The movie wasn’t as bracing as it needed to be, but it was still as bracing as a mass-market early-’00s blockbuster could be.
The main thing that the first Hunger Games film had going for it was Jennifer Lawrence. It’s hard to imagine an actor better-suited to the Katniss Everdeen character. Two years before The Hunger Games, a 19-year-old Lawrence played a smart, tough, resourceful girl trying to protect herself and her family from predatory, violent, uncaring forces in a remote mountain town. Winter’s Bone is too good to be remembered as an extended Hunger Games audition, but it showed that Lawrence was the rare young performer with the presence and charisma to make Katniss into both a survivor and a revolutionary symbol.
By the time The Hunger Games came out, Lawrence was already an Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone and a participant in the blockbuster-franchise economy for her part as Mystique in X-Men: First Class. While she was still filming the sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lawrence’s work in Silver Linings Playbook won her the Best Actress Oscar. Lawrence had become overwhelmingly famous in a short amount of time—a trajectory that eerily mirrored Katniss Everdeen’s sudden elevation to Capitol celebrity and symbol of resistance. There is absolutely no way that the Hunger Games series could’ve worked without her.
For a blockbuster franchise—especially a blockbuster franchise marketed to children—The Hunger Games is just remarkably bleak. At the end of the first movie, Katniss and her fake boyfriend Peeta have figured out a way to survive, but they’ve already learned that they can only stay alive if the ruling class continues to deem them useful. They’ll have to play a role for the rest of their lives, propping up the regime that killed their friends and tried to kill them. Lawrence sells anger and frustration and determination and fear whenever she’s onscreen, and she keeps the movies from becoming a joyless trudge. While she’s holding it all together, Lawrence also covers for her severely wooden and under-developed male leads. It’s really pretty amazing.
For Catching Fire, Lionsgate replaced director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence (no relation), a commercial-movie journeyman with a music-video background and a less vaunted reputation than Ross. Still, Lawrence was a pretty inspired choice. He’d done blockbuster apocalypse before; his messy-but-haunting I Am Legend had been one of the biggest hits of 2007. And he’d also proven that he could capture the ridiculous dazzle of the Capitol. He had, after all, made the “Bad Romance” video.
With Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence inherited a cast that surrounded the young leads with smart, absorbing character actors: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, an almost alarmingly naturalistic Lenny Kravitz. Lawrence added more. The whole idea of Catching Fire—a Hunger Games tournament full of past victors, a kind of Top Chef Masters of televised murder—allowed for Lawrence to fill out the cast with interesting veteran performers rather than smooth-skinned young mannequin types. Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Jena Malone all get to steal a couple of scenes. We also get the addition of Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair, the hottest character in the whole series. The Hunger Games is a franchise without sex on its mind, but when Claflin shows up, it at least indulges the idea for a moment.
Lawrence also cast Philip Seymour Hoffman, the most talented actor of his generation, as secret good guy Plutarch Heavensbee. (It’s been said plenty of times, but the Hunger Games character names are truly ass.) Hoffman had already been plenty compelling in studio-sequel fare like Mission: Impossible III, but that’s not the Hoffman that showed up for Catching Fire. Instead, the film has a disconnected Hoffman shambling his way through, never seeming fully present. A few months after Catching Fire opened, he died of an overdose.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has problems beyond the distracting sight of a doomed Philip Seymour Hoffman in paycheck-collecting mode. By 2013, the entire idea of fandom had changed. After Harry Potter and Twilight, studios had accepted the idea that audiences would rebel if adaptations of beloved books took any creative liberties with their source material. The Hunger Games movies, like the other YA movies of the era, are literal-minded near-transcriptions of the novels. Catching Fire is also a violent dystopian survival tale that, by its nature, has to be PG-13. Francis Lawrence is forced to find artful ways to display the horrors of a totalitarian state without pushing the film into R territory. He mostly succeeds. The scene of Daft Punk-looking military forces executing an old man behind a closing door is legitimately upsetting.
Even with those adjustments, there’s only so much that Catching Fire can show. The way-too-long movie wisely devotes much of its running time to world-building. We see that all the contestants, even the ones we’re rooting against, find their own ways to quietly protest their fates. We don’t want to see any of these characters die. When the story enters the gladiatorial arena, there’s one great scene: Katniss watching her friend dragged away just before she’s plunged into a dangerous new environment.
The combat parts, though, get numbing fast. Catching Fire doesn’t have anything like the sting of Battle Royale. Instead, it has overly complicated plot-logic trickery and CGI attack-baboons. Certain touches work well, like the nasty Evil Dead-looking boils that characters get after they touch poison gas. But the movie mostly relies on viewers’ knowledge of the book to make any sense at all. When the film finally ends—on a cliffhanger, not at a solid inflection point—Katniss is saved by a weird visual echo of Toy Story 3, with which Catching Fire shares a screenwriter. The movie had to end that way, since that’s what happens in the book, but it’s still funny to think about Oscar winner Michael Arndt scripting multiple blockbusters where the heroes are saved, at the last second, by giant claws that come down from the sky and scoop them out of danger.
The ending of Catching Fire doesn’t really offer any triumph. It’s The Empire Strikes Back, but even more downbeat. As in Empire, our heroes barely escape with their lives, wounded and demoralized, knowing that their friends are being held hostage. But Catching Fire also ends with the information that their hometown has been bombed off the map. That’s some bleak shit.
Really, there’s a lot of bleak shit in the blockbusters of 2013. Man Of Steel is the grimmest grand-scale superhero opera in recent memory. Gravity puts Sandra Bullock through hell before allowing her to survive by the skin of her teeth. Fast And Furious 6 kills Han and Gisele. Frozen, the smash that effectively kicked off a new Disney renaissance, is all about a young woman who wants to be left alone in the cold. Even something as quippy as Iron Man 3, the No. 2 hit of the year, forces Tony Stark to contend with his own trauma. But Catching Fire, more than any of them, is built on the classic teenage idea that adults are out to get you and that they’ll destroy you if they get half a chance. It’s probably good that a whole generation of kids learned that lesson at the multiplex. It’ll serve them well.
The runner-up: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity starts out as a terrifying ordeal before transforming into a triumphant survival adventure. It turns inanimate space garbage into a malevolent, unsettling villain. Going to see Gravity in the theater was a true physical experience—the kind that we don’t get often enough. In a year where many of the pleasures of blockbuster cinema were familiar—Gravity is the only movie in the year-end top 10 that didn’t start, reboot, or continue a franchise—Cuarón did something new.
Next time: Clint Eastwood, at 84, makes the biggest hit of his career and of the year, the wartime biopic American Sniper.