The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I opens with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) buried deep in District 13. After breaking the Hunger Games arena and getting rescued by freedom fighters in the previous movie, Katniss has been spirited away to the thought-to-be-extinct last District. News of the Capital laying waste to her home in District 12, plus the memories of the Quarter Quell, where Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and two other victors were abandoned by the rebels, has thrown her into a confused depression.
Suffering from PTSD and loads of regret, Katniss reluctantly agrees to be the face of the rebellion under the supervision of Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Using media and propaganda, Plutarch uses Katniss to inspire the other Districts to rise up against the Capital and lead a revolution. On the smaller scale, Katniss is determined to rescue Peeta from the clutches of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who has brainwashed the victor for his own propaganda purposes.
The film makes some bold moves early on. Rather than revisiting the actual Hunger Games again (which was done to creative effect as the Quarter Quell in Catching Fire), this movie tells a different type of story. It isn’t a story of survival in the field, but rather a rallying point for a rebellion. That shift in direction, though, is hobbled by its existence as only half the narrative from the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. What started out as a better-than-expected and relatively smart young adult franchise has hit a rough patch, and it appears the greedy money grab for four movies rather than three is the epicenter of the film’s problems.
The film draws from other science fiction revolution movies, including the Matrix sequels, The Return of the Jedi, and even Battle for the Planet of the Apes (which also served as inspiration for this past summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). From the set design and composition, the film does cut a little too close to the bone, mimicking the look of Zion from The Matrix as well as the overall appearance of the Dauntless home base from Divergent. This last bit feels like internal marketing for Lionsgate’s other ongoing young adult dystopia series as well as a snake swallowing its own tail as this film rips off the series that ripped off this series in the first place.
There’s also some neat allegories of political propaganda, the nature of manipulating media and the selling of one’s soul that’s supposedly necessary to attain a leadership position. Not all the actions of the people in charge, which end up becoming Katniss’ actions at times, are noble and just; they just happen to have the right effect.
However, the film has some serious problems. The most glaring problem is that this movie is really only telling half of the story from the final book. Unlike the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows two-parter, which had an organic and easily identifiable half-way point, Mockingjay – Part I feels more like the penultimate episode of a television series before the finale. There’s no natural story arc, and the film simply ends in the middle, revealing a weak semi-cliffhanger.
Even worse is the fact that this first half needed to be padded out to justify its nearly two hour running time. Instead of one scene in which Katniss wakes up from nightmares from PTSD, we’ve got at least two. Instead of one scene in which Katniss expresses her concern for Peeta’s safety, we’ve got at least three. Instead of one scene in which Katniss climbs atop rubble to look at the devastation the Capital has rained on a District, we’ve got at least three. A sizable chunk of this movie could have been left on the cutting room floor, and neither the story nor the characters would have suffered. Sadly, this rather innovative series has suffered a Twilight-sized Part I story bloat.
One of the irritating things in Catching Fire was how often the first act of the script had to remind the audience that there was a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). But at least that was only the first part of the movie, and once the Hunger Gaming started, things got pretty great. Here we never emerge from those moments. More than half of this movie features people sitting around talking to other people, or President Coin delivering a speech like Morpheus does to Zion in The Matrix: Reloaded.
The only thing that really saves the film are the actors involved. When Lawrence stops whining and crying, she really delivers a strong performance as a reluctant-yet-fiery military hero. Hoffman plays in the background to fantastic effect, Moore strikes a perfect balance between seasoned leader and dedicated revolutionary, Elizabeth Banks shines as the conflicted captive Effie Trinket and Sutherland is perfectly smarmy and evil as President Snow (though he’s only in a handful of scenes).
I can only hope that Mockingjay – Part II will be a better film with less unnecessary padding. As a series, it might be fun to revisit the whole shebang one day, but I honestly don’t know if I could make it through this first half of this final story again.
The Upside: There are some really good actors involved in the film, saving many of the scenes that could have been quite painful.
The Downside: It’s half a movie, so you’re being snookered into paying twice for a complete film.
On the Side: Author Suzanne Collins is credited under “Adaptation by” rather than under “Screenplay by,” which was one of her credits for the first film. I don’t know the full story behind this, but I imagine it has something to do with the (ultimately poorly conceived but financially lucrative) decision to divide the final book into two films.
Related Topics: Jennifer Lawrence