The last part of everything gets cut in half nowadays, from the last Harry Potter movie to the final season of Mad Men. So it’s not a surprise that the final instalment in The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, got turned into two films instead of one. But while there’s some justification for serving up only half a course here – a lot happens in the book, and it needs extra time to do it justice – it does mean that Part 1 feels like, well, Part 1. It’s not quite a whole movie.
We start with a quick recap of the story so far, as heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, as if it needed to be said) cowers in a dark corner, telling herself the story of her life. Since she improbably survived the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss’s world has fallen apart. Now, she’s living in the underground remains of a place she’d been told no longer existed, a figurehead in a war she never meant to start, with most of her allies either dead, kidnapped, or as broken by their ordeal as she is. All she wants to do, really, is curl up and cry. But she can’t do that. Katniss is the Mockingjay, and now the revolution has started, it needs her to keep it going.
If this was the first The Hunger Games movie you’d watched, you’d struggle to keep up, despite the crumbs of background dropped in along the way. Mockingjay Part 1 starts off in a dark, convoluted place, and it’s not just Katniss who’s a mess. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being kept prisoner by the Capitol; Gale (Liam Hemsworth) has signed up to District 13’s military; and Finnick (Sam Claflin) has become a twitchy, suicidal recluse. It’s only the new characters who are still managing to get anything done. District 13’s leader, President Coin (a gloriously icy Julianne Moore), is determined to unite the Districts to overthrow the Capitol, and she intends to use Katniss to do it.
The plan, as decided by PR man Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is to create a series of propaganda videos starring Katniss. These ‘propos’ will be broadcast across Panem, inspiring the rebels and scaring the Capitol. The problem? Katniss isn’t up to it. She’s so unconvincing in front of a green screen that the rebels decide to put her back in the field, followed by a camera crew, to try to get some footage of her being genuinely inspiring.
Naturally, things don’t go according to plan, and there’s death and destruction all around. It’s bleak stuff, and that makes for a pretty bleak movie. There are a few snatches of humour, but if Mockingjay Part 1 makes you laugh, it’s bitterly. Everything hurts so much in this movie; all of the characters are so thoroughly beaten down. While The Hunger Games and Catching Fire both spent some time in the colourful glittering world of the Capitol, Mockingjay Part 1 sticks mostly to the dreary grey District 13, and while the contrast is both deliberate and effective, it’s hard not to feel a little battered by it.
It’s not that this isn’t a good adaptation of the source material. The screenplay, by Danny Strong and Peter Craig, is incredibly faithful, with only a few tweaks here and there for time and emotional impact. Some minor characters get a bit more screen time than you’d expect; others disappear. Extra scenes are inserted to give us access to the world beyond Katniss’s experience, and some of those work better than others. Sometimes it just feels like the film is repeating itself though. Like in the previous two movies, there are moments where Jennifer Lawrence expresses something perfectly with a look, and then the script makes her say it out loud as well, just in case you didn’t quite catch it in the back row.
But while most of the changes are smart, nothing can really make up for the fact that this is a film of half a book. At 123 minutes, this is the shortest of the three Hunger Games films to date, but its meandering back-and-forth structure means it feels pretty long.
What does work about the movie? Well, the set pieces are pretty thrilling. District 13 is well realised, a seemingly endless underground fortress filled with grim-faced survivors. The casting choices seem especially good this time round, with new characters feeling immediately familiar and existing ones developing in front of our eyes. Liam Hemsworth gets to be part of the action at last, Sam Claflin is convincingly vulnerable, and Josh Hutcherson is heartbreaking. Elizabeth Banks is a little underused, but she makes the most of her few short scenes, and it’s always a pleasure to see her.
And while there might not be a complete plot or identifiable structure to the movie, the novel’s themes come across loud and clear. The Hunger Games has always been a story about oppression and injustice, and Mockingjay is the point where that becomes impossible to ignore. The movie draws on historical images of slavery and genocide to add heft to its futuristic dystopia, but gets in a good few digs at current politics too. Politicians are egomaniacs and advertisers are liars, Mockingjay says, and what are you going to do about it?
There’s no answer to that question, though. By chopping Mockingjay in half, there’s no real sense of resolution, and one particular staging decision robs the story of even a brief moment of triumph. Threads are woven into place and characters are nudged towards the positions they’ll need to be in for the finale, but since the last film is still another year away, it’s all a bit unsatisfying. Part 1 ends on a dramatic note, but it’s not a hopeful one. This is a movie saturated with despair and grief, and there’s very little comfort available. Yes, that’s exactly what you’d expect if you’ve read the book, but it’s hard to defend that decision from a cinematic point of view.
Mockingjay Part 1 will probably play better once you can marathon Part 2 straight afterwards, but by itself, it’s a two-hour long emotional bludgeoning. Pack some tissues, fellow Hunger Games fans – you’re going to need them.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is out on 20 November.
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