The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (there’s a mouthful), directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Jennifer Lawrence, presents a rare problem to the casual movie reviewer, in that it’s director and star share the same last name. It’s customary in this sort of work to refer to everyone by their surnames after the first mention, but here that tradition looks like it could become potentially confusing.
This is the first one of these I’ve reviewed, and to be honest, this series has begrudgingly crept up on me. I wrote off the first movie before seeing it, assuming from the little I’d heard that it was simply a YA softening of the ideas and moves previously seen in the likes of Battle Royale and The Running Man. Eventually catching Gary Ross’ first film on a streaming service, it did little to particularly sway that view, but left me curious enough to kill time on Catching Fire a year later. That movie surprised me. I was drawn into the world created by Suzanne Collins to a far greater degree than I wanted to admit, particularly enjoying the second installment’s comments on the persuasive and surreal nature of celebrity. In fact, as far as this sci-fi adventure series goes, I’ve so far been more interested in the world surrounding the games than the games themselves. In short, the growing quality of the work has lent the series a new fan.
Catching Fire ended with Katniss Everdeen destroying the force field around the gaming arena and getting whisked away by rebel forces from District 13. If you’re new to the series and this is all quickly sounding like so much gibberish then Mockingjay – Part 1 is not the best place for you to make your entry point. Continuing the good work he did with Catching Fire, Lawrence shows no interest in coddling newcomers now; you’ve either done your homework or you’ll be left behind. However, I imagine coming to this movie cold you’d still be able to pick up and juggle the characters and dynamics in Collins’ far-fetched but engrossing dystopia, largely because it paints its concerns so boldly.
As you’re no doubt aware, this is not quite the closing chapter of the trilogy. Capitalising on a trend that already proved fruitful to both the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas – and has irritated cinema-goers everywhere – Mockingjay has been divided up into two parts. Time to roll eyes and make comments about those hungry studio execs. And yes, there is a level of frustration in watching a two-hour movie which essentially has no third act. However, if you can get over that and look at the material we are given here, then Mockingjay – Part 1 offers plenty of meat for the cinema going audience; arguably the most substantive of the series thus far.
We join Katniss cowering in a vent. Not the bold warrior we’re used to. Evidently the events of Catching Fire have caught up with her. Coaxed out of her crawl space, we’re introduced to the world of District 13; a deep concrete bunker that’s light on colour, with living quarters that (fondly) recollect some of the design work from the Alien franchise. Grey coveralls are clearly ‘in’ this year, and the people of this literal underground community are bristling to fight back against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol.
District 13’s president is Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who, together with the stunningly named Plutarch Heavensbee (the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman), hopes to use Katniss as a propaganda tool to inspire the people of the other districts to rise up against their totalitarian leaders. Katniss, grieving the presumed loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is initially in no fit state to take up this task, but when she sees the devastating truth of what Snow has done to her home in District 12, she quickly accepts the position as Coin’s figurehead – her mockingjay.
With the games now out of the picture, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Hunger Games was done picking at our obsession with spoonfed media, yet Mockingjay – Part 1 smartly continues to play in this pertinent field, switching the focus from the editorialised smoke and mirrors of reality television to the more troublesome territory of political propaganda and op-head bias. It quickly transpires that Peeta is not dead, and Snow uses him, via a series of broadcast interviews with Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman (where is Collins getting these names?), as a tool to shape public opinion, just as Coin relies on Katniss.
Everyone here is playing a game of perception. The film itself is even refreshingly self-referential. A sequence in which Katniss is asked to act in front of, essentially, a green screen reminds us not just of the subterfuge in moviemaking, but the collaborative efforts that help create them. Lawrence’s film acknowledges its own artifice and pulls it into the conversation. Mockingjay – Part 1 becomes a ‘propo’ of it’s own; asking for your love as much as your distrust.
It’s both rare and invigorating to see a franchise like this, whose target audience is relatively young, mixing up such provocative ideas when a more prosaic story of good vs. evil would’ve sold just as many tickets. Tonally, this is also markedly less cheery than your usual 12A offerings. Certainly this is the most sombre blockbuster of recent times. Lawrence does not shy from presenting acts of terrorism and genocide without varnish. The scenes in which Katniss encounters the devastation of District 12 are genuinely chilling, not least as they openly recall real world footage that most of us have been exposed to.
‘Going dark’ has been a popular swerve for action and fantasy franchises in recent times, yet Mockingjay – Part 1 pulls it off expertly. The key to this is Katniss. Director Lawrence (see, this is getting tricky) and the film’s screenwriters (including, a little unexpectedly, Danny Strong who starred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are smart enough to network the film’s broader concerns through Katniss’ emotional attachment. Her grief for her home and her longing for Peeta prove vital connective tissue to bring this all together into a cohesive, emotionally engaging whole. Jennifer Lawrence nails it, making Katniss one of modern entertainment cinema’s most watchable central figures. And, considering she spends much of Mockingjay – Part 1 purely playing spectator, this is a tremendous coup for the series. Giving your audience emotional investment through the lead character ought not to be rocket science, but Lawrence and Lawrence have made it work far better than most of their peers of late.
This, together with the comparative ambition and complexity of the material, raises The Hunger Games above a number of its contemporaries in the field, and largely makes up for what is lacking in Mockingjay – Part 1, namely the sense of a well-rounded and contained story. Franchise installments are always strongest when they can equally function as a standalone piece. This entry makes no attempt to sate such hopes, and can feel like watching a mid-season episode of Game Of Thrones (there’s even Natalie Dormer – yay); it’s a transitional piece, and for those craving adrenaline, the lack of action set pieces may make the expansion of Mockingjay hard to justify.
For me, this first half flew by, allowing Lawrence to further developed a world that only seems to grow more interesting. I have no real problem with the excessive cumulative running time in this instance; it’s being used far more wisely than, say, Peter Jackson’s egregious bloating of The Hobbit. More than anything, The Hunger Games feels like a fantasy saga of our times, one that dares to broach pertinent issues. It actually has something to say, making it feel durable. A time capsule of conversational entertainment at this point in time.
Not only that, but the stage is now set for an explosive finale sometime next year.