WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS FOLLOW
Allow me to begin this review by addressing it to those who always proclaim the sacredness of descriptive content in novels and attack film adaptations that leave out certain plot points. If all the book-to-movie adaptations we are getting bombarded with were insistent on keeping every single detail that occurs in their literary counterparts intact onscreen, we would end up get something like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (and for the sake of time and my own sanity, I will take to simply calling it Mockingjay for the remainder of this review). Something like Mockingjay would be long, talky, uninteresting at times, and boring. It would fill its entire run time with events leading up to the climatic ending, which wouldn’t end up coming until the end of the second “part.” This is a gripe I have with the idea of splitting a film (based on a single book) into two parts. In visual entertainment, there exist two leading mediums: film and television. What’s great about movies is that they allow a viewer to sit down for a couple of hours and experience a single story. Beginning, middle, end, done. Television, on the other hand, is great because it lets a viewer spend more time with characters while also having breathing room to make changes throughout the course of a series. Both mediums are great, and both for their own reasons. When movie franchises consist of multiple movies, that’s all fine and well. There’s nothing wrong with furthering a story. But when a movie franchise has multiple movies and then has its final movie split into two separate movies, that’s pushing it. The filmmakers are either trying too hard to mimic television or they just want to earn an extra buck. However, as much as I’m against this method, it’s only been done twice before and the first time was a real charm (yes, I am in the minority that likes The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 more than Part 2, even though each part is terrific in its own right.) Thankfully, the writers (newcomers Danny Strong of Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Peter Craig of The Town) do a wonderful job with the pen as they make a two hour long talkfest actually, occasionally gripping.
The story picks up after the events of Catching Fire (duh) as the Capitol is dealing with the rising threat of revolution after Katniss loosed an arrow at the dome surrounding the arena (big deal, right?). Miss Everdeen (as Donald Sutherland’s slickly sadistic President Snow so proudly addressed her) is now labeled the Mockingjay, the living representation of the rebellion. With this labeling comes the pressure of leadership, responsibility, and urgency. With hundreds of people steadily latching onto hope, she mustn’t fall away from the cause. She must stand tall. She must lead firmly. And she must… talk a lot. And so must everyone in this first installment that ends up feeling like half of a movie. But in reality, what did you expect? We’ve seen it with Harry Potter and we’ve seen it with Twilight. At this point, we know to expect half of a movie. And we’ve come to expect an ending cliffhanger that tops all cliffhangers (even though the cliffhanger at the end of this one wasn’t nearly as much of a “WTF YOU ENDED IT LIKE THAT??” kind of moment we got at the end of Catching Fire.) But, as I said, the screenwriters do a pretty good job with the only real thing they have to do in a movie like this: make it entertaining. The last thing it needs to be is boring. And while I can say that Part 1 as a whole isn’t as good of a film as the previous two were, I can say that it never bored me. Going in, I had heard from some critics (that I trust, by the way) that the movie is not only boring, but lacking completely in action and mostly eventless until the final twenty-or-so minutes. To my surprise, that wasn’t the case.
For the majority of Mockingjay, it is talky. Julianne Moore’s President Coin and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee have a strange way of feeling like the film’s main characters, even though the posters do well to plaster Jennifer Lawrence’s pretty face and bow-wielding limbs. Katniss is, of course, the main character and the one we follow for the majority of the time, but this movie spends much of its time with the leaders of District 13 planning their rebellion against the Capitol. It’s almost like an opposite viewpoint from that of Catching Fire, which spent a good deal of time developing its antagonistic characters. As Coin, Julianne Moore is actually excellent, almost perfectly bringing the character to the screen without flaw. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles, proves once again that he was truly a treasure. He will never be forgotten. As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence (coming fresh off two back-to-back Oscar nominations, winning one) is fantastic. She has owned this role since 2012 and she hasn’t lost a bit of passion or energy. For the course of the movie, Katniss is trying to figure out just why Peeta is looking so unhealthy when he is broadcast on television from the Capitol. When compared to the previous films, Josh Hutcherson is given less screen time, but this may be his best performance in the role, especially in the final few moments. His weight loss and sickly demeanor are actually affective. He’ll have more time to shine in the next installment.
Not much really happens for the first two acts of Mockingjay as far as action is concerned, but that isn’t really a bad thing. This series has always been praised for its deft blend of political/societal undertones and the undertones are present here. In a way, this movie feels like a couple other movies released this year, Gone Girl and Nightcrawler, both of which deal with the behind-the-scenes action of news and informative media. Much of Mockingjay consists of Katniss filming propaganda films (in the movie they’re called “propos;” cute, I know) and these sequences, while sometimes repetitive, were pretty fascinating to watch. Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer does some fine work as Cressida, a former Capitol-ite turned rebel. She does the main filming of Katniss’ propos, and it was nice to see a familiar face rocking some sexy-crazy hair. After our main characters realize that Katniss can’t read lines worth a damn, they decide they have to venture out into the heat of battle. As they’re away, the Capitol notices. Bombs go off. As fire is burning and people are running, director Francis Lawrence (who took the shaky-cam problem from Gary Ross’ first film and obliterated it in the second) brings it back for no apparent reason. I may have audibly groaned when the camera started shaking. But I only noticed it a couple times, so I guess it’s forgivable. Just please, Mr. Lawrence, no more in Part 2.
After an hour and a half of talk-talk-talk, propo-propo-propo, and an occasional camera shake here and there, Mockingjay really picks up. After the revolution somewhat begins and the Capitol’s dams are attacked (in a rather stunning sequence), everything escalates and if Part 2 maintains the same intensity for even half of the film, it looks like it will be great. As a small group of volunteers from the protagonists’ side is issued to carry out a secret mission that involves invading the Capitol while the power is out, it’s riveting. As the characters strap on military gas masks and descend into the building, red lighting illuminating the lens, visual comparisons can be made to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. As they make their way through the Capitol, it feels a bit like the finale of Zero Dark Thirty. Back in District 13, Coin, Katniss, Plutarch, and Haymitch (an excellent Woody Harrelson) watch closely on their monitors as the team’s camera feed gives them a visual of their POV and it feels like a scene heavily inspired by the photo of President Obama and company in the Situation Room as Seal Team Six raided Osama bin Laden’s compound. Even the final speech by President Coin feels a bit reminiscent of President Obama’s after Bin Laden’s death. Maybe I’m the only one who found these comparisons, but I found them to be quite obvious, yet still meaningful.
Really, we should appreciate The Hunger Games. In the midst of all the young adult-dystopian-sci-fi-romance-fantasy-blah-blah-blah that is obliterating the box office these days, this is a franchise that has heavily influenced half of them, and still remains twice as good. Since the studio decided to split Mockingjay (the least liked of all three books, mind you) into two movies, they made it essential that each be treated as their own film so I feel obligated to say that when Part 2 comes out, I may view this film in a better light. But I already know the events that are to come because I’ve read the book and I must say that as a completely singular film, Mockingjay – Part 1 isn’t great. But of the three young adult-dystopian-book-adapted movies this year (Divergent and The Maze Runner), this one is certainly the best. In the end, it feels like episode 9 in a 10-episode series. It does everything it can to set up the finale. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it isn’t. But for a talkie movie that’s 95% buildup and 5% “okay now we’re getting into the good stuff,” it never once left me saying, “I wish this would pick up already!” That itself is more than a recommendation.
Rated PG-13 for for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Written by Danny Strong and Peter Craig
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Photo credit: daytonaradio.com, imdb.com, thepochtimes.com