2012’s The Hunger Games can be seen as patient zero when considering the current epidemic of dystopian young adult novel adaptations (Divergent, The Giver, The Maze Runner), and while it has established the cinematic language for these types of films, it’s taking its cues as a franchise from other sources. Like the Harry Potter series and “The Twilight Saga” (ugh, what a name) before it, Lionsgate has opted to split the final book in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, Mockingjay, into two films. And thus we have The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. A film with everything you could ever want: letters, a numeral, a colon, and a dash.
Picking up where The Hunger Games: Catching Fire left off (spoilers for that film, I guess), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been liberated from the titular competition – a playful, government-imposed death sentence enforced by dictatorial President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) to keep the poor people of future-set Panem in check – by a group of rebels including other-President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and double agent Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). They plan to use Katniss – who once won the games in mutinous fashion – as the symbol of their uprising, but Katniss is unsure, especially when her involvement could mean the death of one of her two loves, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a hostage in the Capitol.
The strength of the last two movies has been the games themselves, which made it so frustrating that both films spent so much of their respective running times preparing for the contests instead of showing them. That fact also made Mockingjay a gamble, as there is no Hunger Games to drive the action. But as Katniss notes early in the film, when seeing Peeta alive on a screen for the first time “[they’re] still playing the game.” The rules have just changed now. It’s no longer about beating each other to death in an arena; now the two factions are using the available tools (Katniss and Peeta) to sway the public.
As such Mockingjay – Part 1 spends a lot of time focusing on the production of propaganda by the rebellion. Hoffman’s Heavensbee takes on a Goebbels-esque role in turning Katniss into a rallying cry, and this is the movie’s most interesting direction. Heavensbee enlists former Capitol resident Cressida (Natalie Dormer) to follow Katniss from district to district, recording the ways her presence inspires the people. Mockingjay director Francis Lawrence isn’t fully on board for this enterprise, though, and he gives the audience of his film plenty to chew on while viewing the ways Coin’s administration use the emotional young woman.
The new structure allows for fewer of the previous films’ pitfalls. Because there is no Hunger Games this time around, there is no pressure to fill out the cast with 24 athletic and attractive participants who may not have the strongest acting chops. Instead the filmmakers take care to successfully choose the several new actors they do need to bring in. Moore is a great addition to the cast, playing the strong leader the rebellion needs, without being a shining beacon of perfection. Similarly Dormer and Elden Henson as one of her character’s crew members add personality to Katniss’s entourage. Even smaller parts like mostly anonymous soldier “Boggs” are well-assigned. Actor Mahershala Ali elevated less-than-stellar writing for years on The 4400, and he brings similar gravitas to another somewhat silly project in Mockingjay.
Of course expanding an already large cast means that a lot of actors get left behind. Stanley Tucci’s flamboyant television host is an excellent presence in the first two pictures, embodying the detestable qualities of those living in the Capitol while exuding enough charisma to keep him uncomfortably likable. He is relegated to the periphery here. Likewise, Woody Harrelson’s mentor character Haymitch gets two scenes, while Jena Malone’s Johanna is seen in one shot and doesn’t even say anything.
Hopefully these characters will all see more screen time in Part 2, but this issue does expose the feature’s main problem – the fact that this is decidedly one half of a story. Catching Fire ended rather abruptly, but it was in the service of an Empire Strikes Back vibe. The ending to Mockingjay – Part 1 is not as unsatisfying as one might expect (you’ll have to watch The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug if that’s what you’re looking for), but it is all set up for a larger confrontation, and it feels like it. There are short glimpses of actual revolt in the districts at a couple of points in the movie – these are the best scenes in the film – but director Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig aren’t very interested in giving this to the audience. At least not yet. Unfortunately for them, there is nothing more deflating then lot of build-up without any payoff.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is one piece of a whole movie. It’s too bad that we have to wait a whole year for Part 2, because this could be a pretty strong film otherwise. There is a sharp eye for the design of the future tech, one of the last really invested performances from an artist gone too soon, and the slightest hints of a successful revolution film. Maybe the final movie in the series will succeed in picking up all of these threads, but the audience is going to need to remember them first.