THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 Review: Flying in Circles
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is the third installment of a four-part trilogy (trilogies now come in fours, not threes, when the third book is split into two films.) Below is a quick recap of how we got here (you may skip the next two paragraphs if you are already familiar with the first two films):
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a dystopian future where the rich and mighty oppress the poor and feeble, and once a year those poor and feeble must fight to the death in an annual contest called The Hunger Games. Two children are chosen to represent each of the 12 Districts (think states) and they must fight until only one wins. Katniss not only wins the games, she outsmarts President Snow (Donald Sutherland), which keeps her District 12 mate – and possible love interest? – Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive and co-champion.
In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss is an inspiration to a beleaguered nation – a symbol of hope. As she and Peeta – whose romance is trumped up for TV, much to the concern of Katniss’ actual man, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – embark on their Victor’s Tour, President Snow has growing concerns that the people might rebel against the government, so he announces that the 75th Hunger Games will be contested by past winners from all 12 Districts. This puts Katniss and Peeta back on the field of battle.
Now in installment three, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Katniss struggles with PTSD, her identity as the face of the rebellion, and the fact that the people who rescued her – including mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), former Capitol Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and president of little-known District 13 Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) – left Peeta behind to die. But Peeta didn’t die, and this only makes matters worse for Katniss. Her former Hunger Games partner and possible love interest has been captured by Snow and is being used as propaganda against the rebellion. Through propaganda of their own, and with Katniss as their inspiration, the rebels of the 12 Districts begin an uprising that will hopefully lead to the fall of the Capitol and a new era of freedom.
When you look at a franchise like this, with its themes of oppression and rebellion, its made-for-the-big-screen action, and its dazzling cast, the last word you expect to think of is “plodding,” and yet plodding is what you get for most of the 123-minute running time here. I am certainly not dialogue-averse, even in action films, but dialogue should move something forward – story, character development, something – and that simply doesn’t happen here. In fact, the dialogue gives such a sense of “talking for talking’s sake” that it’s clear this final chapter doesn’t need to be told in two films.
The early moments of the film show great promise. Katniss is haunted by PTSD in the aftermath of the 75th Hunger Games. This psychological frailty not only plays havoc on Katniss, it allows for doubt in the mind of President Coin that “The Girl on Fire” is fit to be the face of the rebellion. When Peeta is discovered to be alive, Katniss’ internal conflict becomes more complicated.
That’s about where the depth of the story ends.
From this point forward, the film is mostly an exercise in pointless repetition. Katniss doesn’t want to be the face of the rebellion. And then she does. And then she doesn’t. And then she does. Katniss has feelings for Peeta. But what about her feelings for Gale? Or Peeta? Or Gale? Katniss needs to see the devastation for herself, so she is shown the rubbly remains of her old district. She looks pensively out into the distance with tear-filled eyes. And then again at another rubbly district. And again at another.
Insert Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) for fish-out-of-water comic-ish relief, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) for tech speak, and newcomer Cressida (Natalie Dormer) as the take-no-BS director of the propaganda shorts, and there’s your movie.
Meanwhile, those in charge of planning the rebellion don’t really plan the rebellion so much as they talk about the rebellion. The rebellion begins anyway (at least in two districts), but by that point, disinterest has settled in. Also disinteresting are the action sequences, which are not large enough in scope, not frequent enough in number, not long enough in duration, and not compelling enough in execution. Not one action scene is exciting. This is the first time I’ve ever seen an action film where the action sequences feel obligatory.
And then the last 5-10 minutes show up and they are spectacular and leave you wondering where THAT was for the previous two hours. In fact, those last 10 minutes of Part 1 leave me hopeful for Part 2 (releasing November 20, 2015) to finish the franchise on a high note.
I’ve not read the Harry Potter books, but when I saw the last two films – 7.1 and 7.2 – both were so rich and dense and captivating, as both stories and spectacles, it made sense to me why they made two films out of one book. Not here. There is so much nothing happening in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 that the film feels like money-making, fan-exploiting filler. In the hands of more skilled filmmakers, a tight and tense 20-30 minute introduction in front of Part 2 could do a greater service to the franchise than this 2+ hour chore.