The Good: Themes, Decent use of the expanded cast
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Plot is more set-up than substance
The Basics: More a tease for the final installment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is thematically heavy-handed and the film is surprisingly easy to skip!
Despite the fact that my review of Catching Fire (that’s here!) remains one of my most-read reviews, I am not what one might call an enthusiast of The Hunger Games franchise. In fact, when the cinematic rendition of The Hunger Games (reviewed here!) was released, I argued that even reviewing it was utterly pointless; the novel series had such a huge fanbase and Lionsgate had thrown so much advertising at the undecided masses that it was going to be a huge phenomenon regardless of critical analysis. At this point, there is little purpose to bothering to review The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, either, except for those who might have soured on the franchise from the first two films and need a reason to go and see it or skip it.
My vote is actually in the “skip it” category. Not since 28 Weeks Later (reviewed here!) has there been such an unnecessary sequel. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is entirely a transition movie and given where it begins (desperately hinging on seeing Catching Fire) and where is ends (with, presumably*, the initiating incident which will finally crystallize the budding rebellion in the world of Panem), it seems like it would be virtually impossible to watch The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 when it is released next year and not get everything that happens in Part 1 from context clues. Seriously; if anyone out there is on the fence and willing to try, I’d love to be proven right on this one! The reason for this is simple: despite the influx of characters into the universe of The Hunger Games, the ones who survive The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 are only incrementally moved in this film. And, on the plot front, what events do occur in the film have ramifications that will undeniably be self-evident in the second part . . . and the rest is just a dressed up version of what we saw in Catching Fire. [* I wrote “presumably” because I have not read the books, so perhaps the final film will take an abrupt right turn from the direction it has been going for the past three films, though I doubt it!]
The 28 Weeks Later analogy is not an inapt one; where 28 Days Later described the horror of uninfected people fleeing crowds of infected individuals and left it up to the viewer, like the protagonist of the film, to grasp the level of horror and change in the world, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 illustrates over and over and over again what Catching Fire began and showed quite enough of. In Catching Fire, President Snow’s tenuous grasp over the 12 Districts of Panem is slipping and he sends in faceless soldiers into the Districts to do things like beat insubordinate old men to death and shoot rebels and menace crowds with firearms just off camera from televised events. We get it; people are rebelling, Snow’s forces are pretty mercilessly killing them. When that, and the 75th Annual Hunger Games, fail utterly, Snow uses his military to bomb Katniss Everdeen’s home district right off the map. We get it.
So, where Catching Fire unfortunately repeated the plot conceit of The Hunger Games for its latter half, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 browbeats the audience with repetition of Snow’s desperate attempts to retain power and control over the districts that pay tribute to his Capital. Where Catching Fire had an old man getting his head blown off, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 ups the stakes with a line-up of children. Snow, apparently, is not the only one too stupid to realize that if fear failed to keep people in line, more fear won’t stop the rebellious forced; director Francis Lawrence and the screenwriters assume the audience needs to see more and more violent incidents to understand that.
Following her arrival in the subterranean District 13, Katniss Everdeen learns that the world of Panem is on the edge of full-scale revolution. Despite District 12 being obliterated, Katniss’s losses are remarkably small; she is reunited with her sister and Gale in District 13. There, she meets District 13’s “President,” Alma Coin. Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee want Katniss to become the symbolic leader of the revolution, a figurehead that will galvanize their movement. But Katniss is frustrated and determined that Peeta be rescued from the clutches of President Snow. When Peeta, who was captured after the arena was destroyed during the climax of the last Hunger Games, is shown on broadcasts as enemies to the Rebellion, Katniss is convinced that Peeta has been brainwashed and must be saved.
In exchange for committing forces to a rescue operation, Katniss allows Coin and Heavensbee to use her for their own propaganda machine. The result is a conflict that does not climax, a character whose heroic journey is stalled, and a film that seems much more like filler than flash.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is thematically unsettling in that protagonist Katniss Everdeen, who worked very hard to resist being a part of Snow’s propaganda machine in the prior installment, is willing to be a part of Coin’s media blitz against Snow in this one. Either way, she’s just a tool and like Snow menacing her family in exchange for her campaigning and illustrating love for Peeta, Coin withholds resources to rescue Peeta until Katniss commits to help her cause.
Unfortunately, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 flops even more in-context of the larger Saga . . . for anyone who has a memory. Katniss Everdeen didn’t love Peeta in The Hunger Games, she did not particularly love him in Catching Fire (though she was protective of him). In Mockingjay – Part 1, Katniss is more obsessed with saving Peeta without having an emotional connection to him to back that up. Katniss seemed happiest in District 12 when she was with Gale and now she and Gale could be together; from the moment Peeta first appears in Mockingjay – Part 1, the damage he can do is done. He is Snow’s mouthpiece. For a character who has no genuine love for him, assassination should bear the same emotional effect as rescue (a loss to a rebel is a loss to a rebel; how one commits resources says a lot). In the simplest possible terms, Katniss feels more like she is going through the motions with pushing for a rescue attempt as opposed to a character who has a heartfelt love and genuinely likes the guy she is concerned with.
To that end, Jennifer Lawrence does what she can with the role that spends much more time being passive and lackluster than truly compelling. Katniss Everdeen is barely the hero in the process of becoming, as opposed to the “political pawn who realizes she’s actually a rook;” Lawrence has very little she can do with such a limited character.
The rest of the cast is as good as the writing allows them to be. Josh Hutcherson may be bland as a love interest, but as a brainwashed figurehead delivering Snow’s talking points, he seems to have found his niche. Jenna Malone’s time on screen makes no real use of the actress's talents; her character is an afterthought and her appearance is little more than a cameo near the climax of the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland each return to their roles flawlessly. Julianne Moore, Mahershala Ali, and Robert Knepper join the cast and integrate well. Moore is given the most screentime of the new arrivals and she is exactly what she needs to be in order to sell the character of President Coin. She is dignified enough to be realistically presidential and she delivers the character’s strategies with a sense of pragmatism that makes her a good embodiment of a rebel. While Jeffrey Wright is simply continuing his role of Beetee, he is a pleasure to watch; the part of the intellectual with a grasp of both physical and political sciences suits him well.
Ultimately, though, none of the performances are so superlative that they become the “must see” embodiment of any of the actors’ talents, the characters are not drastically transformed in a way that the next film would not have to say (yet again) what happened to them and the themes are nothing new to the audience of the first two The Hunger Games. The result is a film that may be very safely skipped.
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Seventh Son
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Horrible Bosses 2
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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