When judging the success of a franchise “midquel,” such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, I ask two primary questions. Does the movie get me excited for the next film in the series? And, more importantly, does it stand on its own as a complete and compelling work? The third film in the hugely popular Hunger Games franchise answers the first question with a solid “yes.” As for the second question…kind of?
Most of the confusion comes from Lionsgate Studios’ seemingly financial impetus to split the final Hunger Games book into two parts. After the success of two-part splits in the final chapters of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, it’s easy to understand the desire to milk a franchise for an extra movie and an extra $800 million global gross. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I think the decision made some artistic sense, given that book’s formidable length. But Mockingjay is only 400 pages; does the movie adaptation make an argument for splitting the final chapter in half?
We meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she continues to be psychologically tormented by the memories of the brutal Hunger Games and the fact that her home, District 12, has been completely destroyed. But she has little time to rest, as her actions in the previous film have inspired whispers of revolution among Panem’s districts, rallying against the vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The leaders of the revolution, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Havensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles), want to use Katniss as a symbol to turn the peoples’ rebellious thoughts into actions.
But President Snow has his own weapon; Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ fellow Hunger Games survivor and possible love interest, who was kidnapped by the Capitol and is now telling the districts to lay down their arms and surrender. Has Peeta turned to the dark side, or is there something more sinister afoot?
Much of the film consists of a Public Relations war between the Capitol and the rebels, with each salvo more potent than the last. But humming under the surface is the knowledge that words will only get them so far; the revolution is certainly televised, but it must eventually go beyond that into outright war. Nonetheless, the movie does a good job of conveying the power of words and images in guiding the hearts and minds of people.
As most of the book’s action has been saved for part two, there is a lot of talking and crying in this movie, as various characters set up a sure-to-be-epic finale. But the movie isn’t all big breath and no plunge; there’s some real depth here. I appreciate the filmmakers’ boldness to allow the film to be boring, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. This is a slowly paced film, but it’s also shorter than its predecessors. Without worrying about completing a full story, the characters are allowed to breathe and develop with little concern for running along to the next plot point (an issue that plagued some of the earlier Harry Potter films). I appreciate how much screen time is devoted to Katniss’ mental anguish and the psychological torment of leadership.
There is also a distinct lack of Hunger Games in this Hunger Games movie, which is both good and bad. In Catching Fire, I was almost disappointed when we had to go back to the arena after getting wrapped up in the political intrigue of the districts and the ideological tug-of-war between Katniss and President Snow. Here, we get a lot more politics and a lot less sci-fi. The downside is that it makes for a pretty visually bland movie. Without any exotic game locales, we get lots of drab corridors and meeting rooms, with lighting so dim it can sometimes be difficult to see what’s going on. Even the few outdoor scenes have a drab, generic, gray dystopia tone to them, a tired visual aesthetic that Catching Fire wisely avoided.
The movie does feature two major actions set pieces, and they are both excellent. They feel much more realistic and grounded in reality than anything in the arena, and are that much more exciting for it. A tactical espionage rescue effort near the end could have come straight out of a Mission Impossible film.
The standout feature here is the caliber of the acting, which helps to atone for the movie’s sometimes slack pacing and drab cinematography. Jennifer Lawrence has several scenes of quiet anguish that are flat-out brilliant, especially when contrasted with the tightly controlled and manipulated performance she is asked to give for the rebels’ camera. Her ability to show a strange combination of fear, anger and sadness, even without dialogue, is truly remarkable. It’s a performance I can’t praise highly enough. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last roles, shows us what made him so brilliant. When he smiles, we don’t necessarily see happiness, but rather a layer of emotions we can’t quite figure out. His Plutarch is playful yet righteous, determined yet willing to have fun in the process. It’s a complex performance befitting one of the book’s strongest characters. And Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, is brilliant; I think there was a lot to criticize in his performance in the original Hunger Games, but here he is asked to plumb the dark depths of Peeta’s deepest fears. It’s a performance so good it made me appreciate and connect with the character in a way the books never did. We also get a bit more depth from Finnick Odair (Sam Clalflin, also perfectly cast).
Alas, the unfinished nature of the story leaves several characters with little to do (at least until the next film). Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) returns, as does a now-sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), but, while these two were a major highlight of the previous films, they’re now reduced to small parts that almost constitute walk-on roles. Julianne Moore gets very little meat as rebel President Coin; much of her screen time is devoted to giving a series of speeches and looking flustered. Plutarch’s crack PR camera team introduces us to new characters, including film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer), but they seem like little more than background props. And, no matter how hard Liam Hemsworth tries, hunky love interest Gale will always be as bland as Wheat Thins.
This is where I come to a bit of an impasse regarding Mockingjay: Part 1. In a way, it’s supposed to feel like half a movie—that’s what will get you coming back to the theater for part two. But it still feels like a lot of setup for a finale that hasn’t yet arrived, and it leaves some characters in the lurch as they wait around to do something interesting in the next movie. I expect, much like with the final two Harry Potter films, part one will find greater appreciation when it stands alongside its companion film. But the filmmakers are asking us to see it as one movie, so we must engage it as such. I can’t help but think that one three (or even three and a half) hour Mockingjay movie would have been excellent. But, for half a movie, part 1 is still thought-provoking and occasionally thrilling sci-fi filmmaking.