The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

2014, PG-13, 123 min. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 21, 2014

This first go at the final book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young-adult trilogy uncaps a fat, neon highlighter to underscore a defining idea of the series, previously more subtly deployed: that mere human girl Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is a shuttlecock batted between sides in a war for hearts and minds. Sometimes she’s been the reluctant government mouthpiece for President Snow (Sutherland), but more often she’s been a galvanizing force for rebellion for the brutalized 12 districts that make up the nation of Panem. The second film, Catching Fire, introduced District 13, a state supposedly bombed out of existence 75 years prior – turns out its citizenry tunneled underground and has been hatching revolution plans ever since – and it’s in that subterranean barricade that much of this film takes place.

The first two films were better at world-building. Returning director Francis Lawrence doesn’t do anything especially interesting to illustrate District 13’s landscape or way of life, and the drabness of the setting leaches into the dramatic action. Maybe it’s callous to miss the titular Hunger Games. They were, after all, a brutish televised battle to the death that was meant to both entertain and contain the people of Panem. But without the Games’ ruthless simplicity of concept – just a gruesome game of musical chairs, really – the story turns at once wandering and tunnel-visioned, with Katniss’ handlers forever chewing over if she can be molded into a model propagandist, and Katniss endlessly flip-flopping on the idea, too.

Though it’s quickly become standard operating procedure with profitable YA franchises (as with the Harry Potter, Twilight, and ongoing Divergent film series), this cleaving of what once was one book into two feature-length films still rankles, and Mockingjay – Part I doesn’t entirely earn its unique-nation status. The first third of the film moves with the elasticity of mud, and a budget-conscious viewer could be forgiven for filling the time finding ways to trim the fat. (Nix every time Jennifer Lawrence drops to her knees and leaks tears, and that’s five minutes freed up, easy-peasy.) But filmmakers were wise to hang Part I’s climax on a military mission that takes place offstage in the book. It’s a cleverly assembled cross-cut between three different staging grounds that’s tensely suspenseful and still true to the filmmakers’ preoccupation with hyper-mediated war.

That sequence concludes in a smash to black that would’ve been a ballsy place to roll credits. (The moment inspired startled laughs and gasps at the advance screening – a sure sign of effectiveness.) Instead, the movie lumbers on some more, reiterating the obvious and relying on overfamiliar imagery. Audiences have a long year to wait for Part 2. Would it not have been better to leave them breathless than heaving a sigh?

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Francis Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer

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