It was with some reluctance that I went to see the latest instalment in the massively popular Hunger Games series. I haven’t particularly cared for either of the two previous films, and dislike this money-grabbing trend of splitting the last book in a YA series into two films.
In that respect, Mockingjay Part 1 is basically what I feared it would be; it’s half a movie, well half a story, it lasts 2 hours or so. It drags, it feels stretched out, it’s repetitive, and rather unsatisfactory come its conclusion. Unless the final movie turns out to be a complete and total disaster, I can’t imagine any future fan of the series with a Blu-ray box set opting to just watch Part 1 by itself, yet that is what we’re being asked to do now. I feel I should be clear that I do not object to serialised movie franchises, this just isn’t how to do it. See this year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for a fine counter example of how to deliver a satisfying individual movie that also continues an ongoing story arc.
On the more positive side, it does at least not just repeat the first movie again, there is no Hunger Games tournament this time around and it does successfully expand the dystopian universe. I was actually struggling to remember exactly how the mediocre second film had ended when this one began. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is recuperating from the events of the last games in a secret underground rebel facility beneath the old District 13. Former Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a plan for her; he wants to make her the symbol of the rebellion – the Mockingjay. Along with the underground’s President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) he seeks to craft a campaign centred on her to inspire the populace to rise up against the Capitol.
What I like about this series is that it does deal with some seriously big themes, so much so that I almost feel it’s unfair to label it a ‘teen movie’. Here we have not just the more obvious rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressors, but in how the campaign pans out it touches on the power the media (and manipulation thereof) can play in this. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Coin and Heavensbee are using Katniss as a pawn in the same way as President Snow (the cartoonishly evil, moustache-twirling supervillain played by Donald Sutherland). However, very little of what we see in this movie is particularly exciting or gripping. It’s mostly people discussing ideas behind the scenes. They try to produce propaganda films with Katniss but can’t get her to emote, so at the suggestion of Haymitch (a side-lined Woody Harrelson), they send her out with a camera crew to coax natural reactions out of her. It then repetitively jumps between these two sides.
Another thing I’d lost track of were just how many bland blond guys there are in Katniss’ life now. Peeta (bland blond guy #2) is now being held by the Capitol and being used as a counter to Katniss – delivering video messages about the dangers of rebelling. Katniss appears to have developed serious feelings for him now and seems to care about his rescue above all else. Thankfully he’s not on screen that much here, but in turn that unfortunately leads to Gale (bland blond guy #1) getting a more prominent role. He spends a lot of his time moping about how Katniss doesn’t like him like he likes her – moments that really drag the movie down. The one I’d forgotten about was Finnick (bland blond guy #3), he gives a televised speech at one point reminding us who he is, which I feel I must bring up as it contains a revelatory piece of information – but one I only learned from reading another review of the film written by a book-reader. The film basically brushes over this and it’s very important (this may have been for PG-13 reasons I suppose – otherwise this film’s not a violent as the other two so doesn’t feel neutered in the way they were).
As before, the cast is rounded out by a number of over-qualified performers, on the bright side, Julianne Moore is excellent as the silver-haired President Coin, and Jeffrey Wright’s hacker gets a lot more to do. Moore has shares most of her scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman (a Boogie Nights/Magnolia reunion) and it really pains me to say this in the light of his tragic passing, but Hoffman is slumming it again here. His name is actually the first to appear in the credits as a dedicatee; he’s left us with a wealth of great work, but this isn’t a performance to remember him by. The film relies more heavily on the eternally overpraised Jennifer Lawrence than the last two I felt, with her facing a variety of new scenarios. As before she’s fine, bar one moment when she’s supposed to be waking from a nightmare.
Mockingjay Part 1 is very light on action and excitement, it builds its climax around a rescue mission then edits it in such a way that we can’t really see what’s going on. It does get in a decent shock moment close to the end but the final shot left me thinking ‘what, that’s it?’ There is however, one truly great moment in the film, which begins when a mute member of Katniss’ camera crew asks her to sing something. The scene segues from Lawrence’s fragile solo vocals to a large group of rebels attacking a power dam, as this happens composer James Newton Howard swells up the music with orchestral and choral elements. It’s by far the best part of the film and the only real sign of what this series and director Francis Lawrence are capable of. I truly hope that they get their act together and deliver a spectacular final chapter to make up for this, but given that we have to wait a year, I’m sorely tempted to just read online how this story finishes.