The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The problem isn’t that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I is half of a story—the problem is that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I is half of a movie.
Mockingjay might be the third film adapted from Suzanne Collins' indomitable trilogy of dystopian YA novels, but, as fans are well aware, it won’t be the last. Like Harry Potter and Twilight before it, The Hunger Games has a two-part final episode (Part 2 opens in November 2015), a financial masterstroke that has the added effect of lending these concluding chapters an urgent sense of gravitas. (“This story is simply too epic for one movie!” is an easy selling point when your target audience is too young to have seen Lawrence of Arabia.)
Unlike Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, however, this first portion of Mockingjay is painfully suffused with the awareness that it’s less of a story than it is a stop-gap. Deathly Hallows wasn’t the most satisfying trip to the movies, but its characters were motivated by the life-or-death urgency of their battle, blithely oblivious to the fact that they were just spinning their tires and moving chess pieces into position; in Mockingjay, on the other hand, the wait-and-see attitude that makes the film so frustrating is built into the plot itself. While Harry and his pals spent most of their (similarly anticlimactic) movie questing around the wizarding world, Katniss Everdeen spends the majority of Mockingjay retreating deeper and deeper into a giant hole in the ground until the series’ flimsy narrative caves in on top of its lifeless heroine.
When last we saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), the pride of District 12 had just discovered that she was the unknowing face of a revolution. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence’s first contribution to the franchise, came to an abrupt finish as Katniss destroyed the playing field of the 75th Hunger Games (the third Quarter Quell) and was rescued from the ensuing carnage by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the leaders of the rebellion against the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Mockingjay, to its credit, wastes no time recapitulating the past. We're immediately dropped into the dank heart of District 13, the rebellion’s subterranean headquarters, where Katniss’ PTSD symptoms are understandably getting worse. A fragile teenage girl who’s just seen the last vestiges of the world she knows disappear beneath her feet, Katniss has also been separated from the most stabilizing force in her life, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Her eternally pubescent comfort blanket, Peeta has been captured by Snow’s forces and relocated to the Capitol, where he’s been tortured and used as a celebrity mouthpiece for Snow’s anti-rebellion propaganda. Katniss, it soon becomes clear, will be coerced into playing a similar role for her side of the fight, as the the leader of District 13, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), is revealed to be just as mercilessly convincing as her Capitol counterpart.
Mockingjay is the first Hunger Games movie that isn’t burdened with the tedious and gutless spectacle of the Games themselves, and that makes for a severely refreshing change of pace. In breaking from the structure of the previous two installments, Mockingjay displays the temerity to try and take the recent rash of YA adaptations into places the genre's current incarnation has never previously thought to go. Although the film endlessly belabors the same points in order to flesh out its running time, Mockingjay nevertheless deserves credit for devoting an entire chapter of a monolithic pop franchise to a political turf war for the hearts and minds of a country.
The best scenes of the movie, if not of the whole series, follow Katniss as she’s filmed for a series of videos that are meant to inspire the people of Panem. Woody Harrelson is once again a highlight as the lovably alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy, who’s tasked with wrangling Katniss through the campaign. And even before a closing title card reveals that Mockingjay is dedicated to Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s clear from the late actor’s spirited, material-elevating performance that the dedication was mutual. The strongest addition to the cast is Natalie Dormer as Cressida, one of the top film directors in Panem. Like Kathryn Bigelow dressed for the Thunderdome, Cressida is responsible for filming Katniss’ interactions with the citizens on the surface—the victims of an ongoing genocide. Dormer's character is a fun throwback to the legendary likes of John Ford and John Huston, and how their efforts with a camera helped win World War II.
But as much as the Hunger Games movies may want to reflect their heroine's values, they’re invariably all Caesar Flickerman on the inside—defined by their flourishes, and betrayed by their focus. Katniss, like so many of the Chosen Ones at the heart of almost every YA saga, is deathly dull. A broad collection of virtues and allegiances in the shape of a girl, Katniss would be the least interesting person in Panem if not for her competing love interests. There’s Gale (Liam Hemsworth), an Abercrombie & Fitch mannequin who’s been magically turned into a real boy, and Peeta, a wide-eyed dachshund who could only be imagined sleeping with Katniss if he were at the foot of her bed.
Sure, teens in the audience might have a nice reminder that sexual attraction shouldn’t be the only metric for caring about someone, but after two movies in which these emotionally stunted teenagers failed to forge more meaningful relationships, this love triangle isn’t left with any other angles. Katniss repeatedly makes it clear that she’d abandon her people in exchange for Peeta’s self return, and while that selfishness complicates her function as a reluctant teenage savior, Peeta’s uselessness underscores the truth that Katniss is more compelling as a political pawn than a heroine.
It’s a revelation that should, and sometimes does, work to the film’s advantage, but the franchise feigns at sociopolitical integrity in much the same way as it feigns at violence. Mockingjay knows that this stuff is transgressive for a YA movie, but relying on that qualifier ultimately encourages people to see the genre as a pejorative term. By not telling a full story and busying Katniss and her friends with a complete narrative, the spotlight falls on them much more harshly than ever before. But by making an installment that’s almost entirely devoid of action (the climactic set-piece barely registers as a blip) in order to focus on the more sophisticated concepts at the heart of the series, Mockingjay inadvertently underlines why this epic saga is just for kids.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.