Even those who have only seen the movies and haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ best selling trilogy of Hunger Games novels could probably tell from the opening frames of the first film a few years back that a revolution was inevitable in the fictional futuristic dystopia of Panem. Considering how far in advance the events have been telegraphed, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 does a fine enough job of raising the stakes and giving a sense of thematic weight to something that could have come across as a foregone conclusion. Not a heck of a lot happens that will surprise casual filmgoers, but they should be entertained just the same. Fans should be sufficiently satiated and left salivating for the final entry. Most importantly, though, it’s just deep enough to make people who actually like to think about and engage with what they’re watching stay interested.
Of course, one couldn’t just dive directly into this entry. Mockingjay hits the ground running – picking up what feels like mere minutes after the previous entry ends – and doesn’t look back or bother to explain anything that’s already happened. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been somewhat forced by a group of rebels to act as a figurehead for their revolution against the ruling party in the Capitol. If that doesn’t make sense to you, stop reading this and go watch the first two movies. If it sounds too derivative for you, then nothing else will help you out here.
Headed by deposed President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former game master turned propaganda producer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss is to become the figurehead of the people’s revolt. Her original home of District 12 has been demolished, with tens of thousands slaughtered by the armies of the ruling President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Several more districts are starting their own mass uprisings, but they’re easily being squashed by The Capitol’s superior military presence. Coin and Heavensbee see Katniss as essential to the cause given her performance in the controversial Quarter Quell (again, if you don’t know what I’m talking about…), and she can be used as a tool to combat how Snow has been using a captured and tortured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as a pawn in their game to assert control over the proletariat.
Those familiar with the previous films and books will understand this as being pretty simple stuff. There aren’t as many surprises and shocks here despite the strategy being employed by both sides of the revolution. Things are a bit pat all around, but returning director Francis Lawrence and his team are still giving the audience precisely what they want and need: a product filled with high notes, even when those high points are nothing more than cleverly designed filler material.
It’s strange to say that by the third film in a blockbuster series that the filmmakers would have a hard time conveying a larger world outside of the actual dynamic of the Hunger Games, but that’s the biggest hole at the centre of this third outing. I know it’s a cash grab of a film that has been divided into two films to maximize box office profits by the studio releasing it, but at just a hair over two hours it might still be too short. Thematically, this material more than the other two films could be used to establish and flesh out a larger vision of Panem, but that never fully comes.
Two of the most exciting moments – a tree climbing revolt in the logging district and the blowing up of a hydro dam in the energy district – are tossed off as throwaway bits of spectacle, but they’re done so well that I wish they spent more time in these areas. We know there are serious problems in Panem, and it’s nice to see the events of the first two films coming to a head, but Mockingjay tantalizingly hints at a bigger picture that’s dying to come out. Unfortunately for the film’s core demographic of teens, that’s probably not the film they would want to sit through. It’s kind of a shame that these fleeting bits of civil unrest don’t measure up to Katniss’ trip to visit they dying and wounded in a nearly dead district (despite it being designed and shot almost exactly like a level out of a Call of Duty game). These moments are the glue that ultimately hold the film together, granting credence to Katniss’ conflicted feelings towards being a symbol for a civil war. The bonds are flimsy and strong all at once, and there’s a hope that deep down the concluding chapter will delve into that a bit more in depth.
Those gaps in world building get filled in nicely with some cogent talk of survivor guilt, PTSD, and the nature of starting a war based around propaganda. The opening and closing shots of Part 1 rhyme together very nicely, subtly and unnervingly hammering home the mental anguish that Katniss and her friends have suffered before the war began. Lawrence, Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth (as the returning Gale, now a war hero in his own way) get plenty of material to work with to craft the best performances they’ve given in the series thus far. Through their reactions, tics, and different mindsets, they sell the notion that the series has been building towards something bigger better than the story suggests it.
But the best, and inarguably funniest, moments of the film come when the scene stealing Hoffman (whose presence is missed with every posthumous release he has been in this year) takes centre stage and the film shows in great detail his efforts to create the perfect TV spot to rally the commoners. It falls somewhere between commentary on how wars are waged as much in the media as they are on the battlefield, and a meta look at the making of the film the audience is watching. It dabbles in surrealist humour in a Strangelove-ian way. It’s not as sharp and on point as Kubrick, but there are worse places to find inspiration, and finally the filmmakers and cast get to inject some humour into what was previously a pretty sombre franchise.
It’s probably too late in the franchise to court new fans, but there’s something admirable about how Mockingjay positions itself as payoff to those who stuck around after the last two entries. There’s a lot to be said about how the film aims to give the audience something new with familiar characters after the last two entries. It also doesn’t treat its fans like dopes by needlessly recapping every detail. It’s smart in that respect, and it gives the film a sense of looseness that allows for greater themes and ideas to take hold instead of setting up tons of exposition. It also might be the side effect of being a two part film, but at just barely two hours, there’s a sense of economy here that the other films could have used.
It’s the best film in the franchise thus far; certainly the most interesting to think about once it ends. But perhaps a better point of comparison to what kind of film this is would be to compare it to Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. That was a film that attempted to create a world of governmental deceit with talk of trade tariffs, civil unrest, and corporate malfeasance. That movie failed because it took itself too seriously, let the themes run roughshod over characters that could have worked, and it built to almost nothing other than a single battle. Mockingjay is a similarly themed film the same kind of balancing act between the fantastical and the political correct. It delivers spectacle, high spots, and enough dramatic tension to work, which means it accomplishes precisely what it needs to do.