The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

2014 - 123 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong, Peter Craig

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright

Just because The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 self-identifies as half a finale, it shouldn’t be able to get away with being half of a movie. Actually, calling it half is liberal – it’s more like a two-hour first act. If you take a bird’s-eye view of this celebrated YA series, this chapter is necessary to complete the story, but it is sorely lacking as a standalone experience. At one point, heroine Katniss Everdeen comes to a realization after watching a cat frantically try to capture the beam of light dancing from a flashlight. It’s similar to how this series is now toying with the audience. The Hunger Games is the flashlight and we’re the cat, forced to expend a lot of energy to try and grasp something tangible that’s just not there. Not until the next movie, anyway.

The far superior previous installment, Catching Fire, ended on a cliffhanger, but it was handled much better in the better-paced film. When we last saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) she seemed primed and ready to take on Panem’s Capitol and its ruthless leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Instead of taking her rage and running with it, Mockingjay – Part 1 resets and sends Katniss underground with a resistance stationed in remote District 13. Katniss is now conflicted over becoming the face of the revolution being orchestrated by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore). Far too much time is devoted to Katniss’ brooding and Coin’s uncertainty with using the young girl as a unifying figurehead.

Motivation comes when Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is dangled as bait by Snow, using him as a mouthpiece for Capitol propaganda to squelch an uprising. Katniss channels her emotion into rallying the poor, huddled masses outside of the Capitol walls, hoping to inspire change. Old friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) provides Katniss with support as she fends off Snow’s ruthless and heightening aggression and wrestles with her feelings about Gale, Peeta, and the whole of Panem.

This is a lot to get through, but it doesn’t have to take this long. These characters are established, the themes are basic. We get speeches, explanations, and explanations of speeches that spoon-feed us how everyone is feeling and what everyone is doing. Suzanne Collins’ novels may be rich with detail that color the universe, but splitting Mockingjay in two in the name of fan service (and double the box office, of course) drains  the excitement from this go-round.

Jennifer Lawrence continues to be the most capable lead of any YA series to date, and is effective again here at adding levels of complexity to Katniss that aren’t present in the script. She’s even impressive in a couple scenes where Katniss is a bad actor in produced propaganda videos. It can be hard for a good actor to be intentionally bad without it feeling natural. She nails it.

The cast as a whole is an embarrassment of riches, but are used in the most pedestrian ways.  Hoffman and Moore have blunt conversations that allow little more than head tilting or pensive stares. Series vets Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Woody Harrelson – whose sober Haymitch Abernathy isn’t nearly as fun as the drunk one – are cogs pushing the machine forward. Granted, they’re all good at doing that, but everyone is capable of so much more. New additions Mahershala Ali and Natalie Dormer are nothing more than their scripted duties – the military leader and Katniss’ personal documentarian, respectively.

Give director Francis Lawrence and the filmmakers credit for not completely shying away from the darker elements of the plot. Genocide isn’t only alluded to, but shown with piles of rubble littered with skeletons. Executions for treason, though edited, are shown right up to the trigger pull. But there’s also plenty of setting up with only a promise of payoff next year in the next sequel. Katniss is provided with special arrows, but uses her bow precisely once to take down a Capitol aircraft. A warehouse filled with armaments in District 13 is shown, but never used. Even the climactic military operation is a tease, occurring mostly off-screen while talking heads have a video chat.

Despite the wealth of talent involved, Mockingjay – Part 1 just can’t break out of its expository duties. It’s a tough proposition no doubt, but possible. Mockingjay – Part 1 isn’t a complete, satisfying cinematic meal; it’s merely an appetizer – one of those fancy appetizers with a bunch of pretty sauces drizzled all over the plate, but only a tiny morsel of sustenance in the middle. I’m still hungry.

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