Film Review: ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1’

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part

The series' two-part finale gets under way in solid, absorbing if not exactly inspired fashion.

Katniss Everdeen becomes the face of a revolution in “Mockingjay — Part 1,” a tricky transitional episode of “The Hunger Games” franchise that abandons the reality-TV bloodsports of the first two movies to conjure a dour, grimly escalating vision of all-out war. Unsubtly resonant, at times quite rousing and somewhat unsatisfying by design, this penultimate series entry is a tale of mass uprising and media manipulation that itself evinces no hint of a rebellious streak or subversive spirit: Suzanne Collins’ novels may have warned against the dangers of giving the masses exactly what they want to see, but at this point, the forces behind this hugely commercial property are not about to risk doing anything but. It’s a sensible if not exactly inspired strategy, and with Jennifer Lawrence once more carrying the proceedings and director Francis Lawrence (no relation) dutifully replicating the elements of an inherently cinematic story, Lionsgate’s plans for worldwide B.O. domination look secure.

For the millions who have devoured Collins’ bestselling trilogy and are awaiting this movie with an obsessive fervor equal to that of the most rabid “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” fans (who also had to see their beloved franchises end on a maddening two-part note), the only real source of suspense here lies in the crucial question of where exactly Collins’ story has been cleaved in two. Rest assured, the decision has been made with near-Solomonic wisdom, allowing for just enough incident to sustain this relatively trim two-hour setup until its quasi-cliffhanger of an ending, while leaving several big twists to come in “Part 2” (due out Nov. 25, 2015), along with a presumably epic final showdown. Audiences coming to this film with no prior knowledge of the material, however, may feel their patience squeezed and their appetite for action a bit neglected; following the bright-hued battle-royale spectacle of its predecessors, “Mockingjay” reveals a darkening shift in mood, emphasis and color palette as it decisively exits the arena and literally burrows underground.

After shooting the fateful arrow that brought the Quarter Quell edition of the Hunger Games to a tumultuous close in “Catching Fire,” Katniss (Lawrence) was rescued and brought to the ultra-secret District 13, a large, gray-walled subterranean bunker that houses a growing movement bent on uniting the other districts of Panem and overthrowing the Capitol and its totalitarian President Snow (Donald Sutherland, marvelously menacing as ever). The leader of the uprising is the poised, formidable President Coin (Julianne Moore, who seems to have taken hairstyling tips from Meryl Streep in “The Giver”), who urges Katniss to officially embrace her role as the Mockingjay, the rebellion’s fiery, feathered figurehead. As masterminded by Coin’s media-savvy associate Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his second-to-last bigscreen appearance), Katniss will be sent into the war zone to star in a series of propaganda videos, or “propos,” designed to go viral (or its nearest Panem equivalent) and further stoke the fires of revolution across the nation.

As ever, complications emerge stemming from our heroine’s indeterminate romantic feelings toward the noble, self-sacrificing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her two-time partner in the Games and her public love interest. Now being held at their Capitol, Peeta is regularly trotted out on live TV to be interviewed by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, seeming ever more like Regis Philbin’s evil twin), where, under duress, he urges Katniss to quell the uprising; clearly, Snow and his regime are trying to take down the Mockingjay by dangling their own reluctant mascot in front of the camera. To the understandable chagrin of her longtime companion, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who has bravely joined the fight against the Capitol, Katniss seems more invested in Peeta’s safety than anything else, including the success of their cause.

Like the novel, the screenplay (penned by franchise newcomers Peter Craig and Danny Strong) ably conjoins elements of political thriller, combat movie and mass-media satire, weaving a dense network of unsteady alliances, secret conspiracies, ratings-minded power plays and the always-knotty entanglements of love and war. It helps that some of Collins’ storytelling devices, particularly her critical inquiry into the temptations of overnight fame and the uses and abuses of televised propaganda, feel naturally suited to the screen — a fact that director Lawrence and his “Catching Fire” d.p., Jo Willems, have exploited to canny effect. An early sequence finds Katniss stumbling through what remains of her home village of District 12, which Snow’s forces reduced to rubble in the wake of her escape from the arena; it’s a picture of bombed-out, skull-ridden horror worthy of Vereschagin’s “Apotheosis of War” and other visions of hell on earth.

Fortunately, there are welcome if fleeting moments of levity as well, mostly courtesy of Katniss’ temporarily sober mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and her once colorfully coiffed, now plainly dressed escort, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose expanded role here represents the film’s most significant deviation from the novel. Their attempts to turn the initially stiff, camera-shy Katniss into a poster girl for the rebellion provide some gentle amusement, until Haymitch realizes that this Mockingjay can’t be trained to perform on cue: It’s only after she sees Capitol planes bomb a crowded District 8 hospital that Katniss’ guilt and devastation spur her into a moment of genuine, articulate fury. “If we burn, you burn with us,” she tells her enemies in no uncertain terms, coining what will become a mantra for the revolution, as dramatized in stirring, sweepingly effective sequences of the other districts rising up and causing untold damage to the Capitol.

Those brief flare-ups of action — including a daring, high-tech mission to rescue Peeta and the other surviving Quarter Quell tributes from the Capitol — bring a few frissons of suspense to a tale that otherwise operates in a downbeat, claustrophobic register, sustained by the unrelenting pallor of Willems’ studiously underlit images and production designer Philip Messina’s purely functional-looking sets for District 13. Gone are the first two films’ riotous colors and outre fashions; the duo of Kurt and Bart handled the more restrained costume-design duties this time around, their chief contribution being the sleek, black combat gear that Katniss wears for her appearances as the Mockingjay. Even composer James Newton Howard’s usual themes take a backseat to a haunting childhood song that Katniss croons at the film’s midpoint; it’s not long before her allies are humming the same tune as they march on Snow’s empire.

In short, all talents involved seem to have marshaled their significant resources in service of an ever bleaker and more serious-minded portrait of geopolitical conflict, replete with topical parallels (long-range missile attacks, the deliberate targeting of civilian refugees) that cut even closer to home than the filmmakers may have intended — never more than when Snow orders live broadcasts of public executions in each district, the heads of the condemned covered in black hoods. But while helmer Lawrence maintains a steadily absorbing control of the story’s pace, tone and ever-increasing dramatic stakes, the downside of his fidelity to Collins’ novel (the author even gets an “adaptation by” credit this time around) is that the film never shakes off a safe-and-steady, by-the-book feel, or an unfortunate tendency to spell out the obvious. (When Peeta sends Katniss an unmistakable warning, someone helpfully notes, “That was a warning.”) For all its obvious smarts and mildly provocative ideas, “Mockingjay” doesn’t seem to trust its audience quite as much as it clearly trusts its heroine.

If Katniss remains only intermittently comfortable with her celebrity, Jennifer Lawrence herself feels like more of a natural than ever. Although she has less to do on the action front (she fires only one arrow, and it’s a doozy), her Katniss remains the most compellingly human fixture of this dystopian landscape, even when the psychological toll of her sufferings push the performance into a shriekier, more desperate emotional register than before. Some of that is due not only to Katniss’ feelings for Peeta, but also to her concern for her loving but weak-willed mother (Paula Malcomson) and especially her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields, more prominent here than in the earlier films), laying the emotional groundwork for events still to come.

Jena Malone has a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance as ferocious fighter Johanna Mason, while Sam Claflin, superbly introduced in “Catching Fire” as Katniss’ handsome arena ally Finnick Odair, tempers his devilish charisma here to reveal the character’s wounded, vulnerable side, even if the sequence that lays bare his most startling revelations is muddled by excessive cross-cutting (a split-screen approach might have worked better). Hutcherson and Hemsworth continue to be unexceptionally fine; British actress Natalie Dormer reps a strong addition as Katniss’ shrewd propo director, Cressida; and the older stalwarts in the cast — including Hoffman, Harrelson, Banks, Tucci, Sutherland and Jeffrey Wright (as technical whiz Beetee Latier) — again bring a crucial measure of grown-up authority to the YA proceedings.

On that score, Moore’s Coin unsurprisingly emerges as the ensemble’s MVP, her steely intelligence and no-nonsense leadership marking her as yet another manifestation of the franchise’s refreshing gender politics, even as the film slyly encourages us not to judge her or her subordinates by the apparent righteousness of their cause. That power cannot help but corrupt is among Collins’ more potent themes (hinted at here in shots of a District 13 rally that can’t help but evoke “Triumph of the Will”), but one likely to be explored in greater depth — and ideally, with a freer hand — when “Mockingjay — Part 2” arrives at this time next year.

Film Review: ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1’

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15, Los Angeles, Nov. 7, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate release and presentation of a Color Force/Lionsgate production. Produced by Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik. Executive producers, Suzanne Collins, Jan Foster, Joe Drake, Allison Shearmur. Co-producer, Bryan Unkeless.

Crew

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay, Peter Craig, Danny Strong, based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins; adaptation, Collins. Camera (Fotokem color, Panavision widescreen, Arri Alexa digital), Jo Willems; editors, Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa; music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas; production designer, Philip Messina; supervising art director, Dan Webster; art directors, Andrew Max Cahn, Priscilla Elliott, Lauren Polizzi; set decorator, Larry Dias; costume designers, Kurt and Bart; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Jose Antonio Garcia; sound designer, Jeremy Peirson; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Skip Lievsay, Peirson; special effects coordinator, Steve Cremin; visual effects supervisor, Charles Gibson; visual effects producer, Walter Garcia; visual effects, Double Negative, MPC, the Embassy Visual Effects, Scanline VFX, Pixomondo, Rising Sun Pictures, Lola VFX, Whiskytree, Skulley Effects; supervising stunt coordinator, R.A. Rondell; stunt coordinators, Sam Hargrave, Philippe Guegan; fight coordinator, Hargrave; associate producer, Cameron MacConomy; assistant director, Christopher Surgent; second unit director, Gibson; second unit camera, Josh Bleibtreu; casting, Debra Zane.

With

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Wes Chatham, Elden Henson, Paula Malcomson, Evan Ross.

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  1. Rob says:

    One of if not worse movie I ever saw. Don’t go even if it’s free total waste of time,boring and stuipt

    • Bethan Bright says:

      i’m sorry but i don’t agree with your comment. these movies take a while to film. the actors put in lots of hard work to satisfy their fans. yes, you can have your own opinions but don’t post them on a public website where all the huge hunger games fans can see. (including me) there is hardly any action in part one for a reason, and that reason is: we’re watching Katniss get used to her surroundings and get used to living in district 13. the viewers have to try to imagine what it would be like to be mentally disorientated and have their true love (Peeta Mellark) brainwashed and set to kill you. if you have read the books, like i have, then you would understand more about what is going on and what will happen in part two. Peeta has also had tracker jacker venon injected into him and he has also been tortured so he has been through a lot of pain and Katniss is getting upset all the time because of it. It’s a really sad movie to be honest and if it is not your type of movie genre then that is fine but please don’t insult a well made movie like that. i hope you will change your thoughts about this movie soon. thank you for your consideration. ~BB

      • JS says:

        dear Bethan.. just because a film costs N hundred million dollars and a thousand people work really hard for it, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good film. you know why? because there is a very small creative team, the writer, the director, some producers, a few people involved in major decision-making. and they can go very wrong and, very possibly, nobody can tell them they’re wrong. it’s the case with the hunger games series. I’m watching this for the sake of the visual spectacle, but my brain hurts and revolts against how wrong everything is about this film. it’s a film made by grown-up-children who are still children in fact and don’t understand anything about anything, basically.

  2. Don Yu says:

    I can’t tell if this is a positive review or a negative review. But if you are a fan of character development, you should love this movie. You can’t have more action when it don’t exist. And if you don’t cut it in half, it will be a 4 and half hours movie.

  3. guest2.0 says:

    the downfall of this movie was the fact that they split it into two parts. The ending felt unfinished and like little thought was put into it, and that’s because it was unfinished since they decided to split the movie. The movie became repetitive, and one of the only actions scenes mounted up to nothing since they didn’t show how peeta was rescued after they sneaked into a very vulnerable capital. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it is just a ‘could had been a’ good movie if it was simply not split into two parts.

  4. any says:

    It was not a good movie I love 1 and 2 but this one was the worst $15 dollars I spent :-(

  5. Yawn says:

    “With the birth of the artist, comes the afterbirth of the critic” Mel Brooks

  6. LOL says:

    I fell asleep reading this review. Must have been because of the nature of what is being reviewed by the otherwise fine Justin Chang.

  7. Thomas says:

    Jennifer Lawrence is phenomenal and deserves at least an Oscar nomination for Mockingjay Part 1 and then fingers crossed for Mockingjay Part 2 which is going to be even bigger, darker and an Oscar nomination would be a perfect conclusion with this incredible heroine who is making and will continue to make history…and a great victory for women (Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Alien, so why can’t Katniss Everdeen, the biggest heroine of all time, be too?). Especially this year that the Best Actress category is so weak…

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