I hate this new trend in Hollywood of splitting up the last film in a major franchise into two films. Neither of the previous films that attempted it, “Harry Potter” or “Twilight,” was able to make the pair of films work, with part one often suffering. Needless to say, I had similar expectations for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” but I was pleasantly surprised.
The more and more “The Hunger Games” franchise has gotten away from the actual Hunger Games in which they are named for, the more interesting the films have become. “Catching Fire’s” first half chronicling the spark of the revolution was much more intriguing than the events inside the arena. “Mockingjay Part 1” avoids the arena altogether and as a result it is the richest, most interesting and best entry in the series to date.
The film starts shortly after where “Catching Fire” left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has arrived in District 13, an underground facility led by President Coin (Julianne Moore). Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) want her to shoot propaganda films to help bring the other districts into the rebellion, but Katniss is reluctant. After seeing the remains of District 12 and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) being forced to do interviews from the Capitol against the rebellion, Katniss agrees to help as long as they attempt to rescue Peeta.
The film is an act of measures and counter measures, as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) says. The film ends with a successful rescue attempt of Peeta and the other victors being held hostage. However, Peeta has been manipulated by the Capitol to fear Katniss and attempt to kill her whenever he sees her. As all part ones are wont to do, the ending is generally unsatisfying, but it could have been worse.
The big thing that makes “Mockingjay Part 1” work is that something is actually going on. Sure, Katniss may only fire one arrow the entire movie, but the inner workings of the revolution is just as, if not more, interesting than a war. The art of propaganda is on full display with Hoffman’s Heavensbee reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s character in Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog.”
The films are actually a great comparison. “Wag the Dog” may focus on a fake war and “Mockingjay” a real one, but they both focus on how media is used to sway the masses to a particular cause. There are some nearly identical instances from both films; both films shoot, or attempt to shoot, a propaganda film using a green screen and both use a folky kind of song as their anthem.
It’s an interesting thing to watch not only for Katniss, as she must learn how to play this kind of game instead of the basic kill or be killed that was the Hunger Games, but for the audience as well as we see another side of war that is nearly just as important as battles fought.
For Katniss, after spending the first two films trying to simply survive, it is great to watch her actually try and take an active angle. As a result Katniss, and the film itself, has a complete arch. That is often the biggest issue with first half of two part finales, the story and the characters are practically the same when the film started. Here, the rebels have landed a major victory and are poised to threaten the Capitol, Peeta must be cured of forced fear of Katniss and Katniss must decide if she can commit to being the symbol of the revolution.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the film’s success is the consistency behind the camera. Gary Ross did a serviceable job with the first entry in the young adult franchise, but the series certainly took a step forward when Francis Lawrence took over the directorial reigns for “Catching Fire.” With Lawrence returning to finish off the franchise, not only is the film consistent to what he established in its predecessor, but it is also improved as he has found a nice groove with the look, scale and tone of the films.
The cast is also is the best it has been in the series. Elizabeth Banks has been given more to do than in previous entries and she nails it. Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Hutcherson and Sutherland are all on their games with their characters. Newcomers Moore and Natalie Dormer are solid and strong additions to the film. After being perhaps one of the weakest elements of the previous two films, Jennifer Lawrence easily gives her best performance in the franchise.
The film is not perfect. It probably could have been shorter, though they fill the space pretty satisfyingly, and of course the ending frustrates you, as it is not a real ending. But for a film we knew wasn’t going to resolve much of anything, it does a great job of standing on its own merits.
“Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” will conclude the franchise when it comes out next November.