After three years, returning to the world of Panem and Katniss Everdeen’s ever-aggrieved eyes has become an event as annual as the Hunger Games themselves. And it’s in those eyes, or rather Jennifer Lawrence’s to be exact, that the fire still burns with a white-hot intensity, dwarfing the kindling of its Young Adult contemporaries, and making The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 a requisite piece of your holiday plans. They’ll even cloud the fumes that Mockingjay’s first half is just that: an incomplete portion of a larger story that’s a year away from any actual payoff.
Yes, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 confesses with its title that Suzanne Collins’ source trilogy of novels has become a tetralogy of movies, following the lead of Warner Bros. when they split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two billion dollars films. As a result, the nominal first part of Mockingjay is weighted with problems familiar of other similarly elongated franchises. Nonetheless, there is a cleverness and ingenuity at work in the film’s central war of public relations that adds nuance and moral ambiguity to the big budget “good vs. evil” trope, and a lead character whose anger has morphed into something transformative, again making Hunger Games the smartest sequel in its calendar year.
It’s been merely days since the end of the last movie when Katniss (Lawrence) awakens for the opening seconds of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 in a cold sweat, shouting into the night. Haunted by visions of an abandoned Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is nobody’s visage of a savior by the time she arrives in District 13, basically a prisoner. Despite risking everything to bring her to the fabled and mysterious thirteenth district, its leaders President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) view Katniss more as a prized weapon than a human being. She will be their propaganda puppet, “the Mockingjay,” used to incite anger and unrest throughout the other districts—the fan that will spread the flames of revolution.
For much of the film, however, Katniss has but one concern: what are they going to do about Peeta? Everyone else is talking about war, including the perpetual third wheel of the love triangle, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but Katniss will use the last ounce of leverage and credibility she has with Coin to set Peeta free…which becomes somewhat more complicated when the dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland) reveals he has a weapon of his own in Peeta, the new poster boy for unification amongst the districts. As Katniss gets her hands dirty on the frontline, Peeta appears to be dirtying everything they believe in with each video of support for Snow’s Capitol and the carnage it sows upon the masses.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is a much more closed-off film than the previous entries for reasons other than being the first installment to switch to digital cinematography (which is a particular shame after the stunning IMAX visuals of Catching Fire). Director Francis Lawrence instead wishes to pull the story into a tighter setting than past adventures, concentrating much of the narrative in District 13. Due to the subterranean nature of this sanctuary, the measured pacing of the film allows more time for its characters to be painted. As a result, it is also the first film where Gale and the love triangle are featured in a genuinely central role.
Despite Peeta largely being absent from the film (or perhaps because of it), the love story finally breathes with the kind of attention usually reserved for Katniss’ desperate gasps of survival. And since Gale is the only person besides her sister that sees more than a political opportunity in Katniss, Hemsworth is at last allowed to leave an impression in the series. However, even he is starting to eyeball Katniss as sideways as the rest of District 13, probably because the Hunger Games films always work best when they’re delving into allegory instead of romance.
District 13 unto itself is the real new character for Mockingjay and it’s a grimly impressive one at that with vertically towering art direction, shrinking its refugee “citizens” to a long line of ants scurrying for survival in a dystopian hive. It also makes for an intriguing reversal with the totalitarian regime in the Capitol having the colorful diversity and a freedom of choice (or excess) for its most privileged citizens. In contrast, District 13 prohibits alcohol and make-up, and enforces a uniform policy of only gray jumpsuits—and that’s not the only thing off-white about this place.
Julianne Moore’s President Coin, the other substantial new draw, is more than a revolutionary in a blockbuster; she’s a savvy political operative who knows how to take credit for everything, including Katniss Everdeen. This is probably why the best scenes of the movie involve Katniss and Coin not seeing eye-to-eye about the Mockingjay’s role as a literal walking piece of propaganda (or “propo”).
Like Guadalcanal hero John Basilone from WWII, Katniss is viewed by her newfound government as a prop to sell war bonds or, in this case, pure anarchy in the streets. The early moments of levity come from the awkwardness with which Katniss must deliver stilted soliloquies in front of futuristic green screens, and the most exhilarating and emotional action stems from her forays into the field to get more candid stump speech videos. This of course leads to the movie’s real set-pieces, such as a knockout when Katniss’ mere presence at a District 8 hospital makes it a target for Capitol annihilation, placing Katniss on the frontlines as both a PR person and a warrior princess.
This moral complexity and nuance blurs the lines between the good guys (whose jet-bay admittedly looks like the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars) and bad guys is a credit to the filmmakers and Suzanne Collins for finding complexity in a very archetypal conflict. Katniss might be the chosen one, but here she’s primarily chosen as a tool, leading the mind to wonder how she will escape that designation for the final installment.
But unfortunately, like so much else with this Mockingjay, we will be forced to wait a very long time for that answer. Just as the wartime drama is not resolved, Katniss’ position as the hero for this particular story seems murky since she never rises above her status as propaganda mouthpiece. While it is a great deal of fun to see Katniss and Peeta become competing television personalities for Panem’s sympathy, essentially dueling political candidates (Katniss even has her own publicist in Natalie Dormer), the consequences of their actions do not actually begin until about 20 minutes away from the end credits.
There is most certainly a climax to the picture, but it’s by no means a conclusion or even cathartic. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 simply ends with an unfulfilled promise of the fireworks exploding next time. When coupled with the increasingly dour tone of the franchise—Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks’ reliable comedic presences are fleeting at best in this entry, perhaps because of the alcohol bans—it makes for a very somber experience at the multiplexes, as well as a slighter one than the first two movies.
Luckily, at the end of the day, it is still led by Jennifer Lawrence whose embodiment of Katniss Everdeen goes above the call for blockbuster superheroics, creating a fiercely realized human vessel throughout the movie’s stormy weather. Mockingjay is likely Lawrence’s best turn yet in the role. Whereas Katniss was a girl desperate for survival in the first film, and primarily reacting in anger and hatred for President Snow in the second movie, the character finally appears to grow up in Mockingjay. Harrelson’s Haymitch still amiably refers to his protégé as a girl, but the braid is nothing now but a Super PAC accessory on Katniss, who feels fully adult in her new womanly self-awareness.
Whether it is in the abject horror she depicts when she returns home to District 12 (moving away from North Carolinian mountain iconography and toward Berlin circa 1945) or in her ability to literally cause a nation to sing the songs of angry men by simply humming to herself on a riverside, audiences will not be able to take their eyes off Ms. Everdeen and every one of her emotions.
It takes nearly all of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’s two-hour running time to start moving, but through the eyes of its heroine, you’ll have been pushed in a myriad of directions since the first frame.