THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 Movie Review – All Start, No Finish
There’s war coming, all-out war, all-out civil war, to Panem, the fictionalized future successor to the United States central to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy in print and on film, but not yet (operative phrase being “not yet”) to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (hereinafter “Mockingjay, Part 1”), the two-hour preamble and/or prelude to the series wrap-up next fall. Not surprisingly, Mockingjay – Part 1 suffers from the usual problems and issues associated with Part 1s (cf., Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1). It’s filled to overflowing with inconsequential incidents and equally inconsequential events, advancing the central narrative (the “civil war” between the Capitol and the Districts promised at the end of the first, superior sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) in fits and starts, padding out what should have been the first act (and part of the second) to a listless, lethargic two-hour running time (the shortest in the series, albeit meaningless given the two-part nature of the final film).
The third film in the series spends little time – almost none, actually – in recapping the events of the first and second films, making familiarization with those films key to understanding, if not exactly enjoying, the first half of the last adaptation. It’s a promising sign that returning directing Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend, Constantine) and his two-man adaptation team, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, almost immediately undermine. Opening mere hours or days after the events depicted in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Mockingjay – Part 1 finds the series’ heroine, Hunger Games victor, and reluctant revolutionary symbol, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), suffering from post-traumatic stress. She’s wracked with guilt over the other lost tributes, specifically Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), left behind during a rescue planned and executed by Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Capitol’s chief Gamemaker turned rebel, and his District 13 allies.
Long believed destroyed by the Capitol’s elites for rebelling against its totalitarian rule, District 13 literally moved underground. Under the leadership of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the survivors live in a massive, militarized underground bunker, their individual identities subsumed under a regimented lifestyle where practically everyone wears identical gray uniforms, an intentionally stark contrast with the Capitol’s decadently colorful opulence. Coin seemingly wants what everyone outside the Capitol wants: Freedom for the remaining districts from the Capitol’s oppressive, exploitative rule. With Heavensbee as her public relations strategist and chief propagandist, President Coin convinces an uncertain Katniss to become the face of the pending revolution against the Capitol. In short, Katniss – relegated here to a frustratingly passive, reactive role – to help win the hearts and minds of the other districts as a propaganda weapon, not as a field general or leader. Katniss’ first attempts, shot in front of a greenscreen, fail due to their inauthenticity, but once Katniss leaves the bunker to visit a bombed-out District 8, they get what they want: righteous rage, ready to be beamed to the other districts within minutes.
The Capitol’s unelected leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), refuses, however, to go gently into the good night (history tells us that few dictators, if any, willingly relinquish their hold on political power). He has a propaganda weapon of his own: Peeta. In a series of sit-down interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Peeta urges calm, peace, and, of course, continued subservience to the Capitol. The dueling propaganda adverts (dubbed “propos” by Heavensbee) briefly elevates Mockingjay – Part 1 into a not particularly deep, but still worthwhile, critique of how elites sell wars (often in collaboration with the mass media) to a naive, non-discerning general public (c.f., Wag the Dog, Starship Troopers, Network), but it’s not enough – far from it – to carry the weight of an entire film, even when clearly marked as the first part of a two-part film.
Add to that Katniss’ leaving the underground bunker all of three or four times and a climax where Katniss watches her childhood friend and potential romantic partner, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), as he goes on a rescue mission from the confines of the bunker, and the still woefully underdeveloped romantic triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta (we’re expected to recognize Katniss’ shifting romantic feelings for Peeta, a public performance becoming personal, with next to no evidence of that shift onscreen), and Mockingjay – Part 2 and the implicit promise of wrapping up the war between the Capitol and the districts, as well as personal conflicts and relationships, can’t come soon enough (“soon enough” meaning next November).