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Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Premise: The third film in the Hunger Games series. Immediately following the events of Catching Fire, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is drafted to become the mascot of a brewing rebellion against the Capitol. 

What Works: The latest trend in films adapted from young adult fantasy novels is to split the final book into multiple movies. This has had mixed results. In a few cases, such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the split is justified because it allows a complicated narrative to be dealt with in the level of detail that the story requires. But in many other cases, such as The Hobbit and Twilight: Breaking Dawn, the decision to split the book into multiple movies is a transparent cash grab that overextends the story and results in a movie that is an exercise in padding. With Mockingjay – Part 1 it is clear that the filmmakers have made the right decision or least found a way to make that decision artistically tenable. This film is slightly shorter than the previous Hunger Games movies but it is well paced and the filmmakers use the screen time to do something interesting with Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Picking up where Catching Fire left off, Katniss is recovering from the previous series of games in which she destroyed the arena and instigated a rebellion against the government of Panem. The first half of Mockingjay Part 1 is about Katniss’ recovery; she appears to be suffering from a mix of post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, especially regarding the fate of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) her ally and the other half of her love triangle with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Rather than immediately enlisting for the coming war, Katniss must warm to the resistance effort and that occurs through a series of atrocities committed by the Capitol. That is where Mockingjay Part 1 really shines. The conflict of this movie is equally a shooting war and a propaganda war, with Katniss engaged on the battlefield and making videos to advocate for the resistance. The way the film deals with the art of propaganda is very smart and that intelligence distinguishes Mockingjay from a lot of other popcorn fantasy movies.

What Doesn’t: Fantasy movies tend to be populated by characters who exist on a symbolic level; the heroes embody virtue and the villains symbolize evil and there is little or no gradation in between. This leads to unsophisticated storytelling in which the moral distinctions are superficial. But while that is typical of these kinds of movies, Mockingjay is especially simplistic. There is no subtly to the conflict or to the characters who act it out. No one in this movie is anything but what they appear to be and that is a disappointing change from the earlier installments of the Hunger Games series. In the first two films the contestants in the games had to negotiate fragile alliances and there was a fair amount of ambiguity to everyone’s motives. That was done especially well in Catching Fire and the second film in this series provided some really interesting characters. Mockingjay carries over most of the supporting characters from the second film but they are wasted here. This is especially true of the newly introduced President Coin, played by Julianne Moore. She is the leader of the resistance and there is a hint of a struggle between Coin and Katniss but nothing develops in a meaningful way. Julianne Moore just isn’t given anything interesting to do and for that matter neither are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, and Elizabeth Banks. Seeing such an impressive cast reduced to delivering obvious exposition is disappointing.

Bottom Line: Mockingjay Part 1 is a promising penultimate addition to the Hunger Games film series. It’s difficult to judge a movie like this because it is just half the story but the film is well made, it breaks from the mold of the previous instalments, and it mixes action adventure thrills with perceptive political content.

Episode: #520 (December 7, 2014)