The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is, technically, not a full movie. It’s the first half of the final book of The Hunger Games trilogy adapted to film, but it’s not been adapted in a way that makes it feel like a total experience; this doesn’t feel like the end of a chapter, as a good serialized story should, it feels like the end of a paragraph.
This is a problem, but it’s not as big a problem as it was with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, which was not only half a movie but was also a profoundly inert half a movie. Much more happens in Mockingjay Part 1 than in that wizard movie, and the film actually ramps up to some exciting moments before it suddenly cuts to black.
After the events of Catching Fire Katniss Everdeen lives in the secret, underground District 13 and continues experiencing severe PTSD. The surroundings are as gloomy as her mood; District 13 is a heavily militarized bunker society. Everybody wears identical jumpsuits, the walls are concrete and there’s no daylight. Effie Trinket, who has been brought to 13 by Plutarch Heavensbee, is on the verge of just dying from all the drabness.
District 13’s President Coin is basically the leader of the rebellion, fanning flames across the Districts and keeping contact with the local commanders. She has an army at her beck and call, waiting for the right moment, and it seems as if Katniss is presenting that moment. The Girl on Fire, the girl who broke the Hunger Games, is the perfect propaganda tool, if only Coin and Heavensbee can actually get her to be the Mockingjay on camera. Meanwhile, Peeta, who had been left behind in the arena, is at the mercy of President Snow, who is using him in his own PR campaign.
The Hunger Games films are strikingly brilliant critiques of the military-entertainment complex. The people of Panem are hypnotized by their TV shows, and their entertainments are crafted as cynical ploys to control them. But that system of control can be subverted; The Hunger Games was all about Katniss figuring out how to use the system to benefit herself, while Catching Fire was about Katniss using the system to disrupt itself. Now with Mockingjay she’s out to destroy it, although in Part 1 the thematic impact of that isn’t fully felt.
It’s building, though. Katniss stiffly records a propaganda video (tragically called proppos again and again by the characters - The Hunger Games’ lexicon is among the sillier in the scifi world) before Haymitch convinces the powers that be that her power comes in her honesty - that she can’t be canned. And so they send her into the field, and we begin to see for ourselves just how Katniss can be an incendiary revolutionary leader.
This is my favorite stuff in Mockingjay Part 1. I love watching the political machinations that go on behind the scenes; off in the distant Districts people are dying in riots and uprisings in the wake of the destruction of the Hunger Games, but deep below the ruins of District 13 the leaders of the rebellion are trying to figure out what will make the biggest splash on the news. It’s calculating, it’s cold, it’s real. I’d love to see a whole Star Wars movie featuring Mon Mothma and Jan Dodonna arguing about the political expediency of certain moves against the Empire - which planet to liberate, which moonbase to ignore.
At one point Peeta, in one of his publicity appearances on TV, asks if Katniss truly knows the people with whom she is working, and it’s a good question, one the film lets linger. Yes, the rebels are in the right - the Capitol is monstrous - but they’re seemingly fascist, a society that prohibits coffee and alcohol and individuality, and run by people who view this girl just as much as a pawn as President Snow does. If anything, by the end of this movie President Snow may be taking Katniss more seriously as a combatant than her own people do.
Jennifer Lawrence continues to be stunning as Katniss, a hero who is at once iconic and deeply human. I’ve always liked that Katniss’ first act in the series is to accept the call, that it was her volunteering for her sister that set everything in motion. That initial act - and her willingness to act along the way - makes me forgiving of moments in this film where she’s all but ready to simply back out of the whole thing. Lawrence sells both sides of the girl - she can be a stubborn pain in the ass when her hackles are raised, but until they’re raised she’s a deeply wounded victim of a system that has spent the last two years trying to destroy her.
In many ways Katniss Everdeen is the ultimate stand-in for Lawrence and every other starlet in Hollywood. She’s a manufactured presence whose manufacture is based on real elements of her personality - the Mockingjay can’t be just anybody. The strength, the decency, the anger, are all truly Katniss. And like every actress who is stuffed into a public persona, Katniss is actually more successful when she’s just honest and herself, and she's chafing at the control of those who have molded her thus far.
Previous Hunger Games movies introduced all new casts, but Mockingjay is largely stocked with familiar faces. The big new additions are Natalie Dormer’s Cressida and her documentary team; their job is to capture Katniss in the field being Katniss, and do they ever. Dormer is one of the most fierce screen presences today, and even though Cressida has shockingly little to actually DO, Dormer is constantly interesting.
The biggest new addition to the cast is Julianne Moore as President Coin, and I love her. She’s tough, she’s kind of cold, and she disagrees with Heavensbee’s media manipulations almost as much as Snow loved them. Moore plays military leader with a ramrod back and pin-straight, severe hair, and she’s legitimately taking no shit from anyone. Which makes her eventual softening towards Katniss all the more rewarding, and there’s a scene between Coin and Katniss where the two bond over the weight of leadership - of knowing that there are people out there dying for you, possibly on your orders.
With Peeta out of the way for the entire movie Gale gets more time in the spotlight. Liam Hemsworth has been hanging around the edges of the last two movies, and I’m not entirely convinced he belongs in the center. It’s hard to tell how much of it is Hemsworth, who seems amiable, and how much is Gale, who is endlessly morose about how much Katniss cares for Peeta. Even when Katniss and Gale are running around, being lovebirds, Hemsworth is impossibly mopey.
It’s really their movie; they go hunting together, they go on missions together, they eat lunch together (the movie has a surprising number of scenes where people sit in a cafeteria and watch TV). Gale and Katniss are a great action duo in a way that Katniss and Peeta never could be - there’s a scene where they both standing on a roof taking aim at incoming bomber hovercraft that’s just perfectly badass, and I realized that if Peeta had been in that scene he would have been knocked out in the background or something. I wish the movie had made more time to examine this aspect of Katniss and Gale - they’re truly equals, neither fulfilling a standard gender role in their relationship. If anything, Gale is far more emotionally vulnerable than Katniss (although nowhere near as bad as Peeta, cinema’s greatest beta male). Adding another action scene, while going off book, would have not only picked up the pace a bit, it would have illuminated their relationship.
I will likely never watch The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 on its own after initial release. It simply isn’t a full movie, and it will clearly work better with another two hours appended to it. That said, I didn’t walk out as deeply dissatisfied as I did after Deathly Hallows 1, and I found this movie’s cliffhanger to only grow in my head in the days after I saw it. At first I found the ending point incredibly irritating - that’s it? - but as I’ve thought about the implications I’ve become excited to discover what it will mean in the finale.
The Hunger Games series is, without doubt or exaggeration, one of the smartest, most interesting, deepest and best franchises of our time. The weight of the issues this series tackles - in what are ostensibly films aimed at teenagers - blow away the kind of airy platitudes we get from so many other science fiction franchises, where love is a power in the universe and where working together and holding hands saves the day. In The Hunger Games the characters stop and have discussions about the ways the media controls us for the state, and more than they they SHOW how we can use that same media to fight back. How many science fiction stories explain that fashion can be a revolutionary tool? How many teen-oriented franchises stop to have characters discuss the real world impact of their messages, and their philosophical differences about that? I love every minute of it.
So yes, I’m giving Mockingjay Part 1 a bit of a pass here; it’s not a complete film, but what is on screen is smart and dark in a truly adult way - ie, it’s about the impacts of violence and oppression, not just the kewlness of those things. That Part 1 is unfulfilling in total isn’t because of director Francis Lawrence or the screenwriters who adapted Suzanne Collins’ novel - it’s because of the marketing guys who made the choice to cut this movie in half. If Part 2 satisfactorily knocks down the dominoes this film has set up, in twenty years we won’t even think twice about their release pattern. We'll just be talking about how great The Hunger Games quartet was as serious social commentary science fiction.