The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Apologists will no doubt argue that bifurcating Suzanne Collins' final novel in The Hunger Games cycle, Mockingjay, is the right way to go. There's no doubt that stretching it over 4+ hours allows for a more complete adaptation, but movies are different beasts from books and this luxury damages the narrative thrust and throttles the pacing. Neither of these flaws is fatal, but Mockingjay - Part 1 is easily the weakest of the three The Hunger Games films to reach theaters thus far. (As always with divided films, my overall opinion may change once the entire thing is available and can be seen in a single seating.)
Mockingjay - Part 1 is the darkest chapter of The Hunger Games saga - a departure in many ways from the action/adventure flavor of the previous two installments, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. The pacing is more deliberate, but that's as much a result of the text as it is the expansion of the material. What's missing from Mockingjay - Part 1 is a strong through-story. The previous films were characterized by engrossing, well-constructed story arcs but Mockingjay - Part 1 meanders. Most of the running length is devoted to set-up and, when the finale arrives, the movie doesn't really end; it just stops.
Mockingjay - Part 1 picks up shortly after the end of Catching Fire, which saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Finnick (Sam Claflin) being rescued from the latest games by a band of rebels and revealed that Katniss' home district had been leveled by bombers sent by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Now, afflicted with PTSD and obsessed with whether her partner and love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is alive, she has become listless and uncommunicative. The District 12 refugees, including Katniss' family and old "friends" Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), are living in the secret military bunker of District 13, which is run by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) with an assist from Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). President Coin wants to use Katniss for propaganda purposes - call her the "Mockingjay" and turn her into a rallying point for rebellion across all the districts. To be part of this, Katniss demands concessions, the biggest one of which is that Peeta, who is alive and making pro-Capitol broadcast appearances, be rescued and given a pardon. President Coin agrees and Katniss becomes a figurehead for the dissidents. In that role, she sees firsthand how ruthless President Snow can be.
This is the first The Hunger Games movie not to chronicle an iteration of the duel-to-the-death title match. Mockingjay - Part 1 is more character-based and focuses on the consequences of starting an uprising against a totalitarian regime. To its credit, the movie doesn't soft-pedal things. There are no "rah rah" moments. This is as grim as PG-13 can get; the darkness is comparable to that of The Empire Strikes Back. When the film arrives at its cliffhanger conclusion, there's a sense of profound frustration regarding the mandatory 12-month hiatus before the rest of the story can be told. (For that reason, I'm tempted to recommend skipping Mockingjay - Part 1 in theaters and seeing it on video once Mockingjay - Part 2 has been released.)
Jennifer Lawrence (wearing a wig that's as bad as William Shatner's 1980s toupees) gets to take Katniss in new directions, revealing a fractured, conflicted personality. Other familiar faces have returned, although some, like Elizabeth Banks' Effie and Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, are subdued. Jeffrey Wright once again plays egghead Beetee; there's a scene in which he offers an homage to the James Bond series' Q. Newcomers include Julianne Moore Alma Coin, the leader of District 13 and would-be president of all Panem and Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer as Cressida, the "director" of the propaganda films focused on Katniss.
With darkness impinging on all aspects of the story, there's little time for the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Liam Hemsworth's Gale Hawthorne to move forward. The kiss shared by Katniss and Gale lacks any semblance of emotion and the physical distance between Katniss and Peeta is an impediment. The romance has always been The Hunger Games' least compelling aspect (it may have been shoehorned into the books because of genre reader expectations); downplaying it is not a detriment. More of the move/countermove games between the Capitol and the rebels would have elevated the stakes. Until late in the proceedings, there's not much suspense.
Before Part 2 is released, it's difficult to assign a final "grade" to Mockingjay - Part 1. As a stand-alone, it's worthwhile, especially for fans. It advances the story, expands the character arcs, and introduces some daring elements. But it is in no way a complete movie in the traditional sense. As a result, Part 2 will determine whether Mockingjay soars or crashes to the blasted dystopian earth with a thud.
© 2014 James Berardinelli