For days now I have struggled to find the words to properly lead in to this review for the first part of the final film of the Hunger Games film franchise. Part of the problem is that it is impossible to summarize the feelings on the franchise with this second to last film simply because it isn’t complete. It isn’t complete in the same way that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1 wasn’t complete, it isn’t complete in the same way Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 wasn’t complete and like those films, it makes this “chapter” in the franchise feel overly superfluous.
While some may take solace in the fact that once both parts are released they can then treat them as one, others (such as this reviewer) sees it as sucking the wind out of a franchise that was on the fast track to a bombastic conclusion. Regardless of what may await us in November of 2015, we have to contend with what has been delivered unto us now, in the present, and as it stands things aren’t looking too good.
At the end of Catching Fire there was a lot of craziness that left remaining Hunger Games tributes Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and BeeBee (Jeffrey Wright) in the hands of the rebels along with political refugees Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Meanwhile both Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Johanna (Jena Malone) find themselves as President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) captives in the Capital City where their fate remains unknown. With a rebellion on the brink of breaking out, both sides begin a trail of propaganda to support their causes with Katniss caught in the middle as the revolution’s newly appointed Mockingjay.
After the muddled and disjointed first film left a sour taste in my mouth, then one year later it’s much improved sequel came along and redeemed the franchise, we are now faced with the first part of the final book that had all this momentum leading up to it and all I have to say is what the hell happened? Anyone pumped after watching those final moments of the superior Catching Fire and coming into this highly anticipated next chapter expecting to see…something…anything even remotely interesting will sadly come away wondering what it was they just spent the last 2 hours watching.
Filled with a lot of scenes that put its extensive list of talented cast members (including newcomer to the series Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin) in a number of underground board meeting rooms where they seem content to stay until Part 2 starts, many will wonder what this film is trying to accomplish exactly (besides getting some extra money out of us that is). While it is interesting at first seeing the propaganda machines from both sides of the conflict attack each other, it quickly devolves into a waiting game where not even our main character has anything to do except rescue her sister’s cat and mope around trying to decide if she wants to be the rebel’s puppet.
It’s not that Mockingjay Part 1 is bad, it just doesn’t deliver on the high expectations the last film set us up for and somehow turns Katniss from an asskicking heroine into a bland political bobble head. Blame it on the book, the director, the writers, the movie studio or whoever, it doesn’t matter who, what or why is responsible for splitting the book into two movies. What matters is that we have a film that has sucked any excitement out of a franchise that was on its way to what should have been a thrilling conclusion. As quickly as that second film caught fire this follow up has just as quickly doused it out.
As things play out you start to get this sinking feeling in your gut that something is amiss. It doesn’t hit you right away, the first few times Katniss is called to a room to discuss more exciting things that are happening off screen it feels like there is some momentum building. Even during Katniss’ first trip to a rebel hospital and her ensuing speech that rallies every other district to their cause feels as though it is building to something. But when we start to revisit places that we were at just a minute ago and all the action bits take place far away from our entire main cast, it starts to become apparent that this entire movie, just like our characters, is treading water.
While it is bad enough when the audience begins to check out of the action (due mainly to there not being any), it is even worse when the actual characters get so bored with what they are (or aren’t) doing that they don’t even have anything to say anymore. Seriously, at one point they are all just sitting around a river hanging out as if there aren’t thousands of people dying in the other districts around them and the only guy who has anything to say is the damned mute. That is probably this film’s biggest failure though, that it can’t even do the very least to make the wait interesting.
All the propaganda segments are extremely bland. Katniss’ speeches and call to arms feel like overkill at this point. The Capital and President Snow has already done mass public executions in all the districts and completely destroyed district 12, so it is a little perplexing that this propaganda battle is even needed as one would expect that the districts already have all the fuel they need to rise from the ashes. The only part of any of it that works at all is seeing the emotions stir within Katniss every single time Peeta is put on screen to counter her statements and that is more because of how well their relationship was forged in the last film than anything that happens here.
Still though, the worse offense of the entire film is keeping Katniss at bay the entire time. Even the Zero Dark Thirty style operation that takes place at the very end is underwhelming because once again we see everything leading up to a big reveal and once that happens we cut away and are left wondering what happened. That seems to be the overriding theme of Mockingjay Part 1…string’em along for as as long as possible and just when you get to the cheese roll credits, thanks for your money, see you next year for the REAL movie.
Just as disappointing is the damage done to Katniss as our main character. The heroes journey has a well known and long legacy which has seen many classic heroes become legend (Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and Frodo for a few quick examples), and Katniss was well on her way but this pit stop has revealed that she isn’t participating because she feels the need to free her oppressed people, she is doing it so that her sister can keep her cat and that her friends can be rescued…and that’s it. That is in stark contradiction to her position in the last film where we could see her leaning towards leading the rebellion, but that slate was all wiped clean in the couple hours we see her act so selfishly here.
None of this is even touching upon probably the biggest and most drastic alteration to the Hunger Games formula, which is the lack of the actual Hunger Games! While this was an inevitable outcome considering the growing prominence of the political angle in each film, it might come as a jarring transition for those who only liked the other films simply because of the idea of the games. The argument can be made that Katniss is now in a form of the Hunger Games that she can’t escape from, but that doesn’t do anything to change the fact that the switch from games to a war drama might be a deal breaker for some fans.
If this review is sounding overly bitter it’s because this is twice now that this franchise has pulled the wool over the eyes of this reviewer. After writing off the first film to then be brought back on board with the second and then having the third spit in my face…it’s the Hollywood machine at its worst. Going back and re-reading my original review for the first Hunger Games movie revealed a statement that rings true here as well. While general movie goers should be up in arms over this debacle, the real victims here are the fans of the books and of the movies.
They had a real shot here of making a really great trilogy, but the greedy nature of Hollywood has taken that away from the loyal fans. Instead they will have to suffice with an “OK” first film, a great second one, a poor third and quite possibly a great fourth and final film which will have to deal with the stigma of its poor fist part. Heck, if the fans of the Hunger Games are as rabid as the Star Wars fanbase then perhaps somewhere down the line there will be a fan edit that takes out the 20 to 30 useful minutes of footage from Mockingjay Part 1 and splices it together with the fourth film to create the trilogy this should have been.
Even with all its faults though, Mockingjay Part 1 does still set us up for what promises to be a very satisfying conclusion. It may have stretched 30 minutes worth of content into two hours, but there are still some nuggets in there that reveal a much better film on the way. This was a misfire for sure, but it isn’t a detrimental one. Most everyone will still be looking forward to Part 2 regardless of the numerous failures of Part 1 simply because we all know the good stuff is being saved for next year. With that in mind, perhaps you should just wait and see this at home just before seeing Part 2.
In my review for Catching Fire I wrote the following, “Katniss versus Snow is gonna be a showdown for the ages.” I still believe that for the most part, simply because the few scant minutes in Mockingjay Part 1 where the two of them square off verbally was the most exciting moments of the entire film. Hopefully when Mockingjay Part 2 is released next year we can all celebrate it’s accomplishments and forget that this tragic misstep ever happened.