The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did everything a sequel should do. It raised the stakes, built on the world introduced in The Hunger Games, and explored its characters even further. It was a smarter, more aggressive picture that got my blood boiling in anticipation for the finale to come. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is not that finale. It’s not even half of that finale as its title suggests. No, it’s a tease—the type of movie the term “cash grab” was invented for, and just the latest example of a worrying trend in Hollywood in which studios split up the final installment of a franchise into two parts to elicit maximum returns.
When Warner Brothers split the final part of their Harry Potter franchise into two films, it made artistic sense since the source novel was a near-800-page behemoth. But splitting the 400-page Mockingjay into two films? Where’s the sense in that? Even for someone who hasn’t the read the book, it’s telling that the events in this 120 minute picture have been padded and stretched out. This is a 45 minute short at best.
This is disappointing because there’s a lot to admire in director Francis Lawrence’s film. Like its predecessors, Mockingjay – Part 1 works as an allegory of our obsession with celebrity and media. I was also fond of the way it satirized the propaganda machines of real-world political campaigns. It’s also the darkest film of the franchise so far. This is a movie whose opening scene finds heroine Katniss Everdeen standing among the charred corpses of hundreds of thousands of District victims. There is a maturity here that is uncommon to this genre. If it hasn’t been made clear by now, then this film all but confirms that whatever love triangle that exists, is only secondary to the political battle where every decision has potentially fatal consequences. That itself is laudable.
Mockingjay – Part 1 picks up shortly after the events of Catching Fire in which Katniss (Lawrence)—rescued from the Quarter Quell by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Plutarch (the legendary Philip Seymour Hoffman in his penultimate film appearance)—is taken to the underground rebel headquarters of District 13. Though she’s still plagued by nightmares of abandoning Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the arena, there’s no time to mope. The rebels led by President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch need her for their big plan against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Their plan is to put Katniss in the field and have a team of filmmakers, including Cressida (Natalie Dormer), to follow her every move. She’s going to be the new face of the rebellion— a shiny propaganda weapon to galvanize the downtrodden district denizens to rise up against the tyranny of their Capitol oppressors. But President Snow has a weapon of his own: Peeta. Looking increasingly gaunt, Peeta appears in a series of broadcast interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) denouncing Katniss and the rebellion, thus setting the stage for a televised revolution.
The heart of the Mockingjay – Part 1, and for that matter, this series, has always been the evolving relationship between Katniss and Peeta. These two kids, who had been inseparable in the first two films, only share a couple of scenes in this one, but both, especially their final scene, are electric. It’s incredible seeing how Lawrence and Hutcherson have grown over the last three years. Their performances get stronger with each subsequent film and I can’t wait to see how their characters’ relationship progresses into the finale next fall.
Even in the movie’s duller moments (and there are plenty), Jennifer Lawrence keeps us engrossed. Katniss may spend the majority of the movie being a bystander but the charismatic Lawrence never makes you confuse that passiveness for weakness. Among the vast supporting cast that also includes Jeffrey Wright and a scene-stealing Elizabeth Banks, Moore is the standout. Her President Coin comes off as a creepy cross between Hilary Clinton and Joseph Stalin, a shrewd, calculating politician whose motives aren’t as squeaky clean as her straight white mane suggests. But it’s the late Hoffman who brings the most baggage to the table. Simply watching the great actor on-screen is a profound reminder how great a loss he was to the film world. The world will never have someone quite like him.
As much as director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong struggle with the pacing, they deserve props for keeping the film engrossing during its last half hour. Lawrence, whose action experience with films like I Am Legend and Constantine came to his aid when directing Catching Fire’s big action sequences doesn’t get many opportunities to stretch those chops here. But when those opportunities do come, he executes them with panache. A daring rescue sequence is taut and tense, reminiscent of a similar attack in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Another sequence where Katniss takes on a pair of Capitol jets is equally thrilling. I just wish more of the film were like those two isolated scenes. Mockingjay – Part 1 does end on a very strong note, which increases my confidence for the finale, but there’s no getting around the fact that this movie adds next to nothing to the trajectories of its principal characters. It’s a superfluous film that only exists to con fans off their money.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore
Producers: Nina Jacobson, John Kilik
Running time: 123 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material