The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is the first cinematic half of the third and final installment in the Hunger Games franchise, based on the best-selling novels by Suzanne Collins. Francis Lawrence, who directed the excellent second film, Catching Fire, returns to direct, and the story continues to follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she becomes a reluctant hero and symbol of hope for Panem after escaping the Third Quarter Quell Hunger Games.
After seemingly destroying the Games for good, Katniss finds herself recovering in District 13, with her mother and sister and leaders of the Panem rebellion. District 13 is led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who along with her allies including Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss’ mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and publicity representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), attempts to convince Katniss to become the beacon of hope for the rebellion. She is distraught having learned that her fellow Games competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been captured by the Capitol’s tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and by the horrors she discovers have been afflicted on District 12 and beyond. Her reactions to the atrocities and military-escorted contact with enemy forces are then broadcast around Panem, including the Capitol, who retaliates with their own propaganda broadcast in an attempt to intimidate Katniss and quash the strengthening rebellion.
We are thrust into the story with very limited recap of the events of Catching Fire, which is essential viewing in preparation for this film. No time is assigned to recapping, which is understandable I guess, but a number of scenes in this film feel repetitive and padded out. As the film is the first half of the events that make up Collins’ substantial final novel, it also feels like an incomplete one – setting up a rewarding climax but ultimately denying viewers one. Considering the franchise’s quality so far, I am eagerly anticipating the final installment, but the split is part of a frustrating trend in studio filmmaking (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Hobbit preceding). Mockingjay Part 1, as a result, is not really a stand-alone film. While it is a well crafted and well performed, it is hard to judge the arc as a whole at this point. I didn’t leave the cinema feeling as rewarded as the prior films, despite being engaged and entertained throughout.
As we have come to expect Lawrence is fantastic as Katniss and having such a talented actress headline this franchise has elevated it for me. It is a shame that her decision-making is so heavily influenced by her torn affections between Peeta and Gale, which is easily the least interesting element of the series. Hutcherson looks set to be as a regular cast member again in Part 2, but despite being saddled with some dumb dialogue the core cast of returning veterans (Harrelson, Banks, Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright) again prove why the casting in this franchise has been outstanding from the outset. The new additions in significant roles – Oscar favourite (for Still Alice) Julianne Moore, Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer and House of Cards star Mahershala Ali – are also excellent. Only Hemsworth, as a less-than-interesting love interest, doesn’t fare so well.
Aside from a generic countdown situation that didn’t really get the pulse going, most of the action sequences are tense and well executed, especially Katniss’ visit to District 8 and the destructive raid that follows, and an impressively lit and photographed covert military assignment to rescue Peeta from the Capitol when their power and communications are infiltrated by a rebel jamming virus.
There is a tense, uneasy feeling maintained throughout, culminating in a shocking twist that an unacquainted viewer will surely not predict. Another powerful moment involves the chant (a war cry) of a song sung by Katniss that was filmed and broadcast, as rebels target a Capitol landmark. The design of the establishment of District 13 and the rubble-ruin of Districts 8 and 12 are also commendable.
This is adult YA entertainment, as it contains some quite brutal violence and potent political subtext (which has been present through the preceding films). However, this is an intelligent franchise in the way that it fuses popcorn entertainment with weighty themes of multimedia driven campaigning and the union of discriminated and exploited minority groups against a common enemy. The struggle for Panem has to be compelling because the story, for the first time, is Games-free.
While it is hard to judge this final installment having only seen half, I really like where the story is heading. There are a lot of admirable qualities here and I can’t see how fans could possibly be disappointed by the adaptations to date.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer(s): Peter Craig & Danny Strong (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Runtime: 123 minutes
Release date(s): Australia, New Zealand, UK: November 20 2014; USA: November 21 2014