Hollywood seems hellbent on milking their cash cows for maximum effect by turning chunky final volumes of popular YA book series into multiple films. It began a few years ago with the final Harry Potter book and hit its nadir with Twilight: Breaking Dawn. (I’ve made no secret of my distaste for that series, but I can’t imagine anyone but the most fervent Twi-hard could justify why everything that happens in Part 1 couldn’t have been boiled down to twenty five minutes of screen time.) Now we have the final chapter of the Hunger Games, a book series that falls squarely between Harry Potter and Twilight on the quality spectrum. By and large the Hunger Games movies have improved on the source material. While Mockingjay: Part 1 drags in parts, it doesn’t feel like quite the cynical cash grab that Breaking Dawn did.
The film picks up directly after the climax of Catching Fire, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) having escaped the Hunger Games arena and recuperating in District 13, the hidden and presumed destroyed heart of the resistance against the Capitol and the nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’ fellow Victor and one corner of the love triangle between Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), has been captured by the Capitol and is being used as an anti-revolutionary mouthpiece as riots break out across the districts. District 13’s leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) want Katniss to assume her role as the Mockingjay and inspire the whole of Panem to revolt against the Capitol. Accompanied by a camera crew, Katniss sets out into the war torn districts to star in a series of propaganda videos meant to counter the lies of President Snow.
The best moments of the film show Katniss blossoming into her role as a Che Guevara type symbol, and give Jennifer Lawrence the chance to own the screen as she so often does; she continues to show what a fantastic actress she’s been since her breakout role in Winter’s Bone (a criminally underseen film.) Some of her best work comes without any dialogue, as she wanders the wreckage of her home District 12 (destroyed off screen by the Capitol at the end of Catching Fire.) A lot of the supporting cast is ill-used, particularly Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, who pops up now and again to remind us that he’s still in the movie. Julianne Moore takes stone-faced imperiousness to near catatonia; I know this was an effort on her part to make President Coin a mystery, but she’s such an expressive actress that it seems a waste of her talent. Philip Seymour Hoffman does fine, understated work, but I couldn’t help being distracted by how unhealthy he looked (I’m probably projecting, just thinking of what a waste his death was.)
A colleague of mine lamented that the movie is dull and the characters spend most of their time “staring at video screens” in lieu of any real plot, and I will admit that the movie suffers from a lot of exposition. I don’t have a problem with such things if there is justification, and I do think that part of the tension comes from the isolation and feeling of separation that Katniss feels at being stuck in the underground bunker of District 13. This chapter is basically about the propaganda war between 13 and the Capitol for the hearts and minds of the districts, and I think the claustrophobic feel works, with each side lashing out at the other through a screen. The first half hour or so does creep at a glacial pace, but as soon as Katniss visits a field hospital and begins to assume her role as a rebel leader, the movie had me. The climax involves a daring rescue attempt to the heart of the Capitol (an event only talked about in the book) and it is one of the most intense moments of the series so far. I intend to look at Mockingjay as a whole once Part 2 is released, and as the first act of a larger story, Part 1 succeeds.