It’s truly remarkable what The Hunger Games has become. From a well read but niche book series to a film franchise so large that it’s currently inspiring protests in Thailand, Katniss Everdeen’s story has spread farther than any of the mandatory television broadcasts from The Capital ever could. Last year’s Hunger Games: Catching Fire was a propulsive ride that pretty well swept the reader poll of our first annual Mythie movie awards. But now we’ve come the first part of the end, and a book that most readers likely agree is the weakest of the trilogy now spread across two films.
Mockingjay Part 1‘s biggest problem is clear in its title. It’s not complete. While the previous two films adapted whole books, Mockingjay follows the trend started with the last two Harry Potter movies. Box office returns of this, Deathly Hallows 1 & 2, Breaking Dawn 1 & 2, and the ridiculously extended three films adapted from the single Hobbit book assure that movie companies will likely do everything they can to milk franchises for as many movies as possible, even if it means delivering a narrative that is inherently less satisfying that those which came before it. Thus, rather than fashioning a standalone installment from the bigger story, Mockingjay Part 1 simply hits a fitting piece of tension and stops. Title card. See ya next November.
What is on-screen however is of the quality expected after the previous two films, without the occasionally lackluster effects of the first film, again demonstrating the success of the franchise as a whole. Several of the themes established in the first two films, particularly those of propaganda and psychological warfare, are elevated and very well handled. There are obvious parallels made between Panem’s revolution and real life wars essential in making the film’s loose science fiction feel more tighter.
Whether as a book or a film series, The Hunger Games has always stood out for two things, one of those being its placement as a dark satire of war and manipulation. Here the satire is made immediate, and the darkness even sooner. Everything about the film, from its only sets being a cramped underground facility and bombed out cities to the almost complete lack of any color other than black, white, and gray, portrays a grim outlook on the world. The change in formula from the first two movies clearly sets this one as an end game, even though the end is still a year away.
The other element that makes Hunger Games standout is its heroine, and in the case of the film’s the actress who portrays her. Once again Jennifer Lawrence shines in the part. It’s her commitment which makes the thinner, less believable aspects of the world work and she brings such a depth of emotion that her stare into a television screen says more than the occasionally clunky dialogue. It’s entirely possible that the film is in fact too aware of her strength in the part by frequently asking Lawrence to break down into tears. Yes, the situation is dire, but after a couple of hours the amount of crying is about two sudden bursts away from comedic.
An unfortunate side effect of Lawrence’s deserved spotlight is that the rest of the cast is given less to work with. As with the Harry Potter films before it, Mockingjay Part 1 loads its older cast (meaning not the three “teenagers”) with what equates to a squad of acting ringers. But whereas the previous films offered, for example, Stanley Tucci a chance to really dig his teeth into the scenery, he’s now reduced to being an afterthought in two very restrained scenes. Similarly Jeffrey Wright is strictly exposition and Jena Malone, captivating in the previous film, has more screen time in the trailer than in the movie itself. Hopefully we’ll see more of her in Part 2 but for now her presence is missed. Other members of the cast fare much better, particularly Woody Harrelson, as he has before, Julianne Moore in a quietly forceful part, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, in tragically one of his last roles. Sadly neither Josh Hutcherson nor Liam Hemsworth quite match Lawrence. After three movies, the spark still isn’t there.
Where Mockingjay Part 1 burns brightest however is in the way it departs from its source material for some truly dark, disturbing sequences that magnify the desperation far more than any amount of pining or explaining ever could. Scenes in the other districts of Panem capture a viciousness that isn’t present in Katniss’s bubble. Although the action is lessened, and the tension with it, there are truly moving moments in seeing Katniss come face-to-face with the destruction she has inspired. Part 1 confidently delivers on its themes, even as it obviously holds back most of its biggest, boldest statements for the next film. It may be set-up, but it’s necessary set-up for what should be an incendiary conclusion. Anything less, after an entire film of establishment, would be a crushing disappointment, and hopefully end the trend of splitting final installments into two.