Designing Catching Fire's Retro-Dystopian Future
Dissecting the sets, costumes, and weapons in the latest Hunger Games film
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?)
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.
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.
In the books, the fashion experiments of the Capitol are not confined to hair, clothes, and makeup—they also include surgical body modification. Katniss begins to see her handlers as freaks. In this film they seemed to be playing down the difference between the people of the Capitol and everyone else, when they should have been ramping up the decadence. The only reference to this was an afterschool-special moment when Peeta refuses a cocktail meant to make him vomit, the better to try more delicacies. It felt like an anti-bulimia statement aimed at the movie's younger audience, rather than the seeds of a populist revolt.
Riechers: That cheery pink emetic cocktail, a direct reference to the Romans and their vomitoriums, could have been part of a better exploration contrasting decadence and decency, or cruel leaders vs. downtrodden masses. I wish there was more unity in the overall visual concepts and not so many disparate threads that didn’t feel like they were pursued to a satisfying conclusion.
Effie seems to be thawing out, gaining some human feelings and sense of right and wrong. Is it wrong to say that when she was strictly a cartoon villain, she was a more interesting character? Maybe her Monarch dress could have been made from live butterflies—now that would have been horrifyingly cruel. Her red dress, which we see a bit later, reminded me of a student project I saw once that used about a million Melitta coffee filters to make a coat. Slightly ridiculous, like all her outfits, but not so threatening. So are her clothes saying she’s coming around? Maybe she’ll join the revolution?
Lange: The more interesting fashion was outside the Capitol, where one suspected the rebellion might be sponsored by Etsy. Katniss's crumpled blue linen, her one-shoulder chunky knit vest, her layers. We get it: She’s protecting herself, and they are letting her be a tomboy and wear pants, but it made her undramatized transformation into baby Liz Taylor even stranger. Everyone likes a makeover sequence. None of the fashion made its point cleanly, not even the McQueen-inspired Mockingjay dress. The clothing needs to progress, and so does the architecture, toward some crueler, ever more decadent end. But it feels like they just added another room to the same houses.
Riechers: Weaponry is the dark side of industrial design—most museums don’t include guns in their collections, for instance. Thinking all the way back to Star Wars and light sabers, or Star Trek’s disruptors and phasers: movies provide a perfect opportunity to introduce new weapons that no one has dreamed of yet. But in Catching Fire, the force field technology reminded me of those electronic invisible fences designed to keep your dog in the yard. Clouds of poisonous gas? That technology dates to WWI. The combatants aren’t given anything really innovative to fight with. Instead they use copper wires and huge doses of electricity, bows and arrows, axes, blowguns. Nets! Bricks! Snares! We are going back to Neanderthal times here. Why? Where are the super-lethal, supercool and terrifying new tools with which to destroy each other? I’m making a very bleak observation, to be sure, but aren’t the Hunger Games supposed to be extreme in their cruelty and blood lust? Shouldn’t this apply especially to the weapons design? (The Museum of Modern Art recently took up this topic in an online exhibition, Design and Violence.)
Lange: In Hunger Games, we complained about the Capitol being a mish-mash of the 1930s neoclassicism we identify with fascism—as in President Snow’s gold, thrusting podium, which would have looked right at home at the 1936 Olympic Games—and a hazy 1980s postmodernism, because the series is filmed in Charlotte. Both of those architectural eras share an interest in symmetry, columns, and gold accents, but they are a cliché of political and corporate power run amok.
The one architectural setting that made me laugh out loud was the oval glass elevator in which Johanna Mason strips. It’s a great scene, and I immediately recognized the work of the ultimate 1980s sci-fi architect, John Portman. The Internet tells me it was filmed in Portman’s Marriott Marquis in Atlanta. It would have made sense for President Snow to start pushing his power imagery further, into the baroque curves of Portman. I wanted more sinister effects like the eyes-everywhere moment in that glass elevator, or the flowers projected on the front of the Capitol building for that decadent party. We know Snow’s roses are important from the books, why not have more thorny vines where you least expect them?
The other explicit design shout-out was made on the train, which, as we noted, references the great streamline designers like Henry Dreyfuss. Katniss finds a place to be alone at the back, in an incredible skylit, half-round car. It’s one of the most futurist moments in the movie, and yet it too is from the past: Brooks Stevens’s SkyTop lounge car from the Olympian Hiawatha line, made in 1948. Those trains were advertised to families who wanted to see the USA in style, so it’s an interesting ironic reference: What Katniss sees from her lounge is a militarized, repressive landscape, the cotton fields of District 11 policed by giant Humvees.
We first see the Capitol’s Peacekeepers (design reference: Stormtroopers) out in force in District 11, Rue’s home district, which the films connect more explicitly to the rural south by casting its residents with black actors. The contrast between their skin and the white armor of the Peacekeepers, as well as that between the agrarian, shabby fabric of District 11 and all those shiny plastics, underlines the separation between the Districts and the Capitol we keep talking about. It’s a rare, moving sequence of scenes where the visuals enhances the storytelling.
Riechers: Panem’s future still looks too much like the past to me. The filmmakers didn’t innovate and come up with architecture, environments, clothes, and weapons that we haven’t seen before. This isn’t a wish born of neophilia: In a dystopian future I would be more scared to be confronted by the unfamiliar than by the things I recognize. Catching Fire’s design choices don’t feel ironic or uncanny, they seem uninspired.
Lange: Since this film’s arena failed to make the most of its machinery, my hopes (like those of our heroes and heroines) are pinned on District 13. If the next movie doesn’t open with some organized, overdesigned claustrophobia, I will be severely disappointed.