For the first time in years, our family was really excited about quite a few movies in 2013. Two of our "must-sees" (and we DID see all of them, even more rare) were Middle Movies, the second of what will be two trilogies---Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. Middle Movies tend to be similiar. As good as many are, and I'm not really picky so I'm not saying they aren't good, they lack the newness of the first one and the finale effect of the last. Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers were both great, but I'm more likely to watch the first or last of both trilogies when I get the urge for that kind of thing. Catching Fire and Desolation of Smaug were par for the course.
(note of warning: I'm not going to spoil anything here for those who've not seen the movies, because if you read the book, you already know what happens. If you haven't read the book, well, read it. But this may devolve from the happy posting of Pooh Sticks later. I have some serious thoughts about the Hunger Games series and they aren't really unicorns and rainbows stuff. Be forewarned)
The Hobbit movies are really fun, and Desolation of Smaug (I love the title so I'm not going to shorten it. Ever) is a great sequel. It takes the characters from the giant eagles eyrie to Beorn's house, into Mirkwood and spiders' webs and elven dungeons, on to Laketown and finally to the Lonely Mountain where we meet Smaug the Magnificent. It's quite a bit bigger chunk of book then the first movie tackled, but there is still Peter Jackson's sort of made up stuff thrown in. He shows us Gandalf's journey to Dol Guldor, which happened in Tolkien's world even though it wasn't specifically written about. I'm fine with the additions, as a Tolkien geek. As a movie goer, it adds little to the story, but does offer some really cool Gandalf moments, so I'm a fan. The end of this movie makes it, for me though. I am completely taken by Smaug. From the voice acting to the way his magnificent CGI self alternately strides and slithers, he is a really beleivable character. For a dragon. He's not Gollum, largely because he's not at all anthropomorphic, but he seems very real just the same. He is NOT a cartoon, which is what I feared.
But what the Desolation of Smaug was mostly was a lead-in to the third movie. They covered so much ground that aside from the made up wizard bits, the next film will pretty much be The Battle of Five Armies. We'll see Thorin lose himself and succumb to avarice. We'll see Bilbo betray his friends but not really and he knows it. We'll see armies of Dwarves and Men and Elves and Eagles fight a swarm of goblins and orcs and wargs. It will be completely spectacular. And make me likely leave this Desolation of Smaug sitting while I watch it and the first film on DVD.
Catching Fire was an improvement on The Hunger Games, I thought. I loved the first movie, but this one was even better. It caught the feeling of the books, to me at least, in a more complete way. It really follows the book, too. No softening of the edges at all. It's a harsh, stark, largely sad and even exhausting film. That's what shocks me about both these movies and the books they are based upon, they are really very serious and deeply emotionally political. Yes, I mean to say that, emotional and political, because politics at its base is the art of the use of power, and that is some really soul-reaching stuff. These are political stories, as political as Animal Farm or 1984, and yet they are hugely popular with teenagers. I wonder if they get it. Apparently dystopian is all the rage right now, but I wonder if they know how realistic these movies actually are.
I don't mean the sci-fi aspects, of course, I mean the politics. The ends humans will go to to maintain power over their fellow man. The blind acceptance of evil as long as one is personally comfortable. The docile acceptance of the status quo even if it means you live a life of misery. All these themes are real, very real, and can be seen alive and kicking around the world and here at home today. But it's more than the themes that are real, and it has me both anxiously awaiting and dreading the third movie.
The third book of the Hunger Games trilogy really hit me hard because it reminded me of some things gleaned from my father's stories from Vietnam. He isn't a war story teller. Up until about 1986 or 87 he never spoke about it. He wasn't ashamed at all, I don't think, but society tried very hard to make him feel that way and he just didn't bring up his war experience, or even the fact that he'd served as a Marine at all. It's a shame and it still angers me, but I went into it in a positive way here, so I'll leave it at that. But my father did try to teach me some things about the world. I doubt it's the same "global perspective" my friend talks about being raised with, but it's a global perspective just the same. He taught me that everywhere isn't like here. That we are the exception, not the rule, and to judge other country's actions from our perspective is ignorant and wrong. As an example, it was his influence that led me to disdain Phil Donahue when he had groups of Americans and Russians talking to each other on his show to prove that Russia wasn't the Evil Empire and that Ronald Reagan was a crack-pot and a dangerous one at that. What Phil didn't understand was that the world wasn't like us. Yes, the Russian people were great and they were not our enemy, but that was EXACTLY THE REASON the Russian government WAS evil. Russia the government crapped all over the Russian people, killing them and starving them and beating them and freezing them. To NOT fight against the USSR was to insult and mock and disdain the very good people who lived there. By ignoring and excusing evil, Phil was the enemy of the Russian people, not Ronald Reagan. But I digress.
What people like Phil don't get is that the horrors portrayed in the Hunger Games are so shocking because they are real. In this next movie we will see Peeta brainwashed. This isn't sci-fi, it happens. It happened to the people who helped and worked alongside my father in Vietnam, the people to whom I owe in part my very existence. Re-education camps are standard fair in totalitarian communist regimes. They still are today. But the part of this upcoming movie that I dread/anxiously await is the scene where the parachutes are dropped on the children who think they are gifts and end up being killed by the falling explosive booby traps. Dropped by what they think is their own plane. The reality is no better, they are dropped by the "good guys" for political reasons. See, it's politics and emotion all rolled up in a ball. Children's trust turned to death for political ends. And it happens. Some of the few stories my dad will tell about the war center around an orphanage in the town near where he was based. As an aside, it might be interesting for you to know that the pictures my dad has hanging up in his office from the war are of these orphans and the Marines who spent their spare time playing with and caring for them. Think about THAT before you criticize the US "war machine". The Marines do more good, real, honest good, for real people than every hippie ever born. Anyhow, one of these stories is about the friend of my father's who lost a hand outside this orphanage. See, the Viet Cong knew the Marines played with these kids and didn't want the kids or the people of the town to like the Marines. So they would leave booby-trapped toys outside the orphanage to kill and maim the children. Let that sink in a minute. They booby-trapped toys to kill Vietnamese orphans for political reasons. My father's friend lost a hand taking one of these bombs away from a child. Can you imagine? Yes, you can, because you read it in your fiction and you see it in your movies. But can you do more than imagine? Can you grasp that it's real, and that we can't EVER let it come to that in our safe, happy little world?
I'll cry during that scene. I know it. But I look forward to it just the same, hoping it sinks into some of the kids there to see Jennifer Lawrence and her bow and arrow. I pray it does.