Designing Catching Fire's Retro-Dystopian Future

Dissecting the sets, costumes, and weapons in the latest Hunger Games film
Lionsgate / Murray Close

When The Hunger Games was released in 2012, as design critics we found its Francophile fashion, its Frank Gehry-inspired architecture, and its streamlined technology difficult to ignore—or admire. If this was the future, why did the Capitol look like the 1980s? Do we overlook evil if it’s not dressed up like Fascism? Where did Katniss get that perfectly faded housedress? Naturally, when Catching Fire came out last month, we had to go back for more.

Warning: spoilers from both books and both films ahead.

Alexandra Lange: Catching Fire offered ample opportunity for the production design team to show off their architectural ambitions. The arena for the Quarter Quell, described in great detail in Suzanne Collins's second book, is a rocky wheel within a circular sea underneath an electromagnetic bubble. It is proudly artificial in a way that the wilderness arena in Hunger Games was not, and architects like Buckminster Fuller have been playing with such domes for decades. Similarly: The first time around, the hybrid beasts arrived as a shock. This time, long-toothed apes appear like literal clockwork, the better to emphasize the weariness all of our combatants feel about being made to compete again.

Angela Riechers: Right. But in the film, those apes were not any scarier than real-life baboons, maybe just bigger. I noticed a couple of things, though, that tapped into these games’ unique artificiality. For example, parts of the combatants' buoyancy suits had the same hexagonal patterning as the electromagnetic dome over the Arena, which hinted at some kind of sinister design connection. So I was expecting that there would be a direct cause and effect—electric shocks? magnetic fields?—between the sky and the combatants, a kind of evil manipulation of even the clothes they wear, which never came.


Lange: The hexagons themselves seemed kind of hokey. Television Without Pity used to sell a t-shirt that read "70s sci-fi was all about hexagons." It's an old trope to stand for "high-tech." These films love to rely on old tropes, of course. Last time around, we were struck by the extreme geometry of the Cornucopia, a classic idea pushed appropriately into a lethal, angular form—meant to house weapons, not pumpkins—with references to the work of Frank Gehry and Greg Lynn. But why not iterate? This year's cornucopia was like the last, but with more angles added, and it wasn't put to use. It isn't on its shear walls that tributes die, but on the rocks below. Those rocks looked like the fake boulders that we use to keep the apes in their habitats at zoos nowadays. That parallel could have had some resonance had they been used the same way. But no. It's the technology under the rocks, in the trees, in the sky that make the arena lethal. But the movie, boringly, chose to hide that technology. Why not let the sets do the talking?


Riechers: The Arena did have a diorama-like quality. But I, too, wondered why the technology was so hidden. Imagine having to learn how to use a brand-new interface or some never-before-seen gadget in the heat of battle when the stakes are life and death.  Tech frustration is something everyone watching the movie could relate to. Look at how effective that was in Gravity, where Sandra Bullock had to figure out how to safely land a spacecraft she’d only flown in flight simulators (and crashed every time), first in Russian and then in Chinese.

There also seemed to be less emphasis on the audience watching the games in the Capitol—we didn't see as much behind-the-scenes scheming with the game designers and their little tricks and sudden deployments of useful/helpful items needed in the heat of battle. So that larger audience felt largely absent, almost as if they didn't care about the Games anymore, themselves, or weren't watching. Like the last few seasons of American Idol: The excitement is gone, no one tunes in, who cares.

Lange: I agree Catching Fire rushed past a lot of tension-producing elements that were important in the first film: getting the right gear from the Cornucopia, learning how to use it, even the special dispatches from the sponsors. The spile Katniss receives had an appealing heft and sheen, but that’s an old, old technology. The Hunger Games Wikia says Katniss knew what it was because her father had used one to tap maple syrup long ago. (Who knew?)  

The Luxury Spot; Lionsgate/ Murray Close

You’re right about the audience-within-the-film, though. Heavensbee and President Snow talk about turning the people off Katniss, showing her as Marie Antoinette, wedding planning while District 11 burns, but we never see that. I would have loved more arguments between Katniss and her handlers about her wedding dress, contrasted with her shooting her computer-generated foes in the tribute training center (which still looks like a basement by Marcel Breuer). Maybe the Cleopatra references in her Capitol costuming were supposed to make the point that she’s a controversial female figurehead, but I didn't understand the origins of that theme either. When she first meets Finnick he implies that she's sexy now, but Jennifer Lawrence doesn't act as if Katniss feels that way at all.

Riechers: I saw a lot of Vogue-in-the '60s/'70s eye makeup things in the Capitol—very Penelope Tree—and wished there was more of it. The color palette of the movie was much more muted and grim than the first time around, overall. Maybe the intent was to indicate that everyone was feeling oppressed, not just the people from the Districts. Even Effie's dresses were not as blinding in color, though they were for the most part still plenty sharp and pointy, or silly baby-doll, too-short numbers. I was waiting for some evolution of Katniss's flaming dress (though who knows what that might be–fireworks?) but it basically was the same as first go-round, disappointing. The only surprise came when it changed into her revolutionary costume onstage as the big reveal, a nice touch.

Formiddable; Lionsgate

Lange: I want to talk more about the eye makeup. Jena Malone is pretty great as Johanna Mason, and I loved how insane her lashes were even as she was straightjacketed into the forest-theme costumes deemed appropriate for District Seven.

Presented by

Alexandra Lange & Angela Riechers

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and the author of the recently published book Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. Angela Riechers is an art director and writer, and the recipient of an AOL Artists 25 for 25 grant.

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