Remember that scene in Spaceballs where Yogurt is talking about merchandizing and how that’s where the real money from the movie is made? Well, this is true for some properties and may explain why movies like Cars 2 exist (who’s in the mood for some Kraft Mac & Cheese in the form of Lightning McQueen and Mater?). But the real stinger is the choice studios make to take the last chapter of a successful book series and make it two movies. This unnecessary need to sequelize franchises isn’t for the betterment of creativity, it’s all about pleasing a studio’s bottom line, so it can keep the cash rolling in as long as possible. Following in the footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, Lionsgate takes all the momentum that was built with the finale of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and quashes it with Mockingjay – Part I, the first of the final chapter of a saga that includes neither Hunger Games nor an ending.
When we last saw heroine Katniss she had destroyed the force field containing the arena of the quarter quell, which gave her temporary paralysis and saw Peeta and two other district tributes captured by the Capitol. After the closing events of Catching Fire we now return the world of Panem and the continuing power struggle between President Snow (the delicately tailored and beard-trimmed Donald Sutherland) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Having had the previous movie end in such dramatic, cliffhanger fashion one would think Mockingjay to have a quickening pace to build on the momentum. Instead, it slows down considerably. The forethought to break the finale into two sections subjugates viewers to repetition and posturing for the camera.
Having seen the supreme power that President Snow wields, with her home of District 12 seemingly wiped from existence except for the skeletal remains, Katniss is brought into the underground realm of District 13 (remember that District that was said to be completely destroyed? Guess what – it’s a rebel militia!) and asked to become the face of a rebellion masterminded by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and President Coin (Julianne Moore). They want her to star in a series of a propaganda pieces – they call them propos – but Katniss is reluctant to be their puppet. But with Snow on the offensive, himself using Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as a form of propaganda, Katniss can’t resist the urge to make herself visible. So she walks among the concrete rubble of her homeland, tours a makeshift infirmary in a neighboring district, and sings a limerick from her youth. The images and sound captured of Katniss in the open help fuel the propaganda machine.
The switch from Katniss being a pawn in the Hunger Games, where she grows strength with each obstacle, to becoming a pawn in a rebellion where she is powerless in an underground bunker, may be a benefit to her character, though I don’t see it. Going from coiling vengeance to a more contemplative nature is a bore and allows for a sluggish narrative. More time is spent on getting the viewer familiar with the underground world of District 13 than to establish some of the new supporting characters. Even some of the already established characters are rarely seen. Newly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) pops in a few times and glamour-less Effie (Elizabeth Banks) tries to make military garb sheik. The biggest causality is poor Sam Claflin. I think Buttercup the Cat gets more screen time than his Finnick.
Jennifer Lawrence manages to hold the film afloat as best she can; she is the fire of this dysotopian saga. At times her performance teeters, like when she has a crying episode, but Lawrence does the best she can under Francis Lawrence’s direction. He returns to the director’s chair after Catching Fire and you see the percolation of a rebellion that is about to let loose a full-on assault, but for now we are treated to a few sequences of district residents toppling Capitol guards, getting the better of them while escaping to trees or bombing a hydro-electric dam.
When Mockingjay – Part I reaches its undramatic conclusion audiences realize that there is no ending or cliffhanger to be had. They have been duped. What is offered is a down note, which does little to entice next year’s conclusion. Without a great payoff, after two hours we are left with a hollow film where Katniss and the other children of the revolution are just another brick in the wall waiting to be loosened.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Peter Craig and Danny Strong; based on the novel “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Sam Claflin
Running Time: 123 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material)