The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was one of the great surprises of last year’s roundly dreadful slate of blockbusters. A mature, sophisticated effort that improved on its predecessor in every possible way, Catching Fire managed to separate itself as the paragon of young adult film adaptations. It was the second of three books and the second of now four films, thanks to the continuingly worrying and cynical trend of these giant franchises splitting their final installment into two films (three if you’re Peter Jackson). Set to be released in consecutive Novembers, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay brings back the cast and director Francis Lawrence from Catching Fire, working on a script from Danny Strong and Peter Craig, both new to the world.
Picking up not long after the end of Catching Fire, Mockingjay Part 1 finds heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) confined to the presumed destroyed District 13, where the revolution against the corrupt President Snow (Donald Sutherland) builds momentum, looking to Katniss to be their symbol and inspiration. Spearheading the effort is game-maker cum turncoat for the resistance Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his penultimate performance) and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, new to the series), attempting to create a wedge through the use of propaganda pieces with the help of a film crew (headed by Natalie Dormer) looking to unite the districts behind Katniss, the titular Mockingjay. She is a reluctant revolutionary, much more concerned with the fate of Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), confined to the captial and under the thumb of Snow. The drums of war are beginning to beat, and no one anywhere could be considered safe.
Mockingjay Part 1 has an uphill battle to fight, as by its very nature it exists purely as a cash grab designed to set up the final installment and get a good $400M in domestic box office at the same time. Going in, it is already clear that it will have no resolution, and likely no momentum, and will be positioned as the first act and perhaps half of the second act of a larger story. Mockingjay Part 2 will reap those benefits next year, providing all killer and no filler. All the filler is here, as the film takes its time sparking its revolution. The focus is squarely on Katniss and the turmoil between her destiny as leader of a revolt she never wanted and the health of her friends and family. District 13 is a drab location, a military bunker drained of any color and energy. The wild hairstyles and costumes of the capital have been replaced with a sea of grey jumpsuits (none take this harder than Elizabeth Banks’ ostentatious Effy Trinket) and much of the action is more in the style of heated board room arguments than firefights. There are a few action pieces (a visit to another district, a daring raid on the capital and the like), but this is an otherwise quiet, lower key and viscously paced affair, often having difficulty engaging in the in-between moments. The calm before the storm may be unsettling, but it is not particularly exciting or fulfilling.
What remains fulfilling is Lawrence and company’s ability to perfect all aspects of the central struggle at stake in Panem. It is an impressive feat, considering the world is full of characters with astoundingly silly names and everyone in the capital is dressed like a crazy person. Still, the tone of these films, and the use of terror, oppression and despair juxtaposed with opulence (remember, this was Heavensbee’s plan of attack in Catching Fire) works so astonishingly well that it almost does not matter what happens to these characters, just their existence in the world is enough to resonate on a baseline level.
There are some great ideas at play, especially the implication that Katniss’ new status as the symbol of the revolution is not all that different from her life as a surviving tribute in the first act of Catching Fire. Indeed (and this cannot be fully known until next year), it is entirely possible that with the fat trimmed, there is more than enough here to make it a functional and exciting first hour of a 150 minute film. But the fat is not trimmed, and the world has to wait a full year before learning the final fate of Panem. At its heart, Mockingjay Part 1 is a 123 minute advertisement that does not offer enough intrigue or detail to be worth the time spent in the cinema, especially when the dialogue gets away from them (there are a few too many restatements of something conveyed visually, though not as many as other recent films like Interstellar). Yet, despite this, there are still good performances at the center, specifically those from Lawrence and Hoffman, with Hutcherson continuing to impress in a heavily truncated role. It is a close fight, but the confident acting and immaculate tone and world building manage to eek out a win over the absurdity of its existence as a movie. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 never should have been made in the first place, but credit Francis Lawrence and his crew for doing everything they can with a no-win proposition.