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.
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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.