In a cinematic market saturated with dystopian YA novel adaptations, some decent (Divergent, The Maze Runner) but most woefully inept (The Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Host, The Giver, Ender’s Game, I Am Number Four), the Hunger Games series has risen above the muck as the post-Potter, post-Twilight crème de la crème. And it’s no wonder, considering that The Hunger Games has everything going for it on the millennial blockbuster front: a compelling story, great acting, white-knuckled suspense, and brutal, shocking battle sequences, all involving teens.
For one, the very idea that impoverished, ghettoized citizens would have no choice but to offer up their children as gladiators to a sadistic autocracy is both disturbing and fascinating. Second, Jennifer Lawrence, as the indomitable heroine Katniss Everdeen, holds the weight of the entire franchise on her shoulders with an almost beatific ease, exuding an affectless charm and charisma that few others of her status—including a stilted Shailene Woodley as Tris in Divergent and a near-comatose Kristen Stewart as Twilight’s Bella Swann— can claim.
2012’s The Hunger Games and 2013’s Catching Fire, the first two installments in Suzanne Collins’ book-to-film series, are impressive feats of visual grandeur snarled in anxious, emotional urgency, with the latter film holding an Empire Strikes Back-level of confidence that is stunning to behold.
Unfortunately—and it pains me to admit this—the same cannot be said for film number three.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a valiant effort, but also a superfluous one. Dividing the final book in Collins’ trilogy into two separate films, with almost a full year between release dates, makes absolutely zero sense from a narrative standpoint, as there is no two-part element or natural stopping point that would warrant such a decision. Instead, the split only serves to highlight the voracious studio greed that made this bonus film possible, and without which it wouldn’t have the need to exist. Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 before it, the first Mockingjay was doomed to underwhelm, with Part 2 designed to be the more high-stakes, satisfying conclusion, and Part 1 the slow-burning tease.
However, it is important to note that director Francis Lawrence, who also directed Catching Fire, does succeed in making Part 1 more than just a drawn-out cliffhanger to Part 2’s big finale. In fact, what is most appealing about Mockingjay is how much it diverts from the standard Hollywood blockbuster formula. At its core, Mockingjay, Part 1 is more akin to a dark political satire like Wag the Dog or The Candidate than it is to the fast-paced and action-heavy spectacle of its predecessors, emphasizing an even bleaker shift in tone. With no Games this time around, the battles—with the exception of a few bombings, a covert mission into the Capitol, and one big action sequence that involves Katniss shooting down a fighter plane with an exploding arrow—are wars of words and feelings, especially in regards to Katniss’ potentially lethal relationship to an estranged Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, giving his best performance yet).
Picking up almost exactly where Catching Fire left off, Mockingjay takes Katniss into the underground world of the rebel alliance, District 13, and their planned uprising against the Capitol, still helmed by the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland). And although much of the film is confined to the drab grey walls of that altogether uninteresting compound, the cast contains no shortage of colorful characters, from new faces like the tattoo-ed soldier Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and icy President Coin (Julianne Moore, superb as always) to returning fan-favorites Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Plutarch (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
And these actors have plenty of meat to sink their teeth into, especially when brainstorming how to unite the remaining districts behind Katniss as their leader in battle, their symbol of hope, their Mockingjay.
“When did Katniss make us feel something?” Plutarch asks the group.
Effie brings up when Katniss took her sister’s place in the Games (“I volunteer as Tribute!”) and when she sang the song for “poor little Rue.” The others nod their heads in agreement that, yes, those scenes were indeed touching.
The point is hit home even further when Effie shows Katniss a scrapbook of old costume designs by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who was killed off in the previous installment; and the realization hits, if not in that moment, then later, when the theatre lights come up and the crowd dissipates, that “Oh, yeah, Catching Fire was much better than this.”
Although well-acted, cleverly executed, and spiked with a couple of series-high moments, Mockingjay, Part 1 still feels like an overextended way station en route to a more substantial denouement, and is not nearly as exciting or memorable as the films that preceded it. At its best, it’s a sharp and self-aware commentary on the media’s power to manipulate; and at its worst, a dreary middle passage that holds the promise of something better, but that we’ll have to wait another year to see for ourselves.