“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” takes a drastic turn from the previous two entries of North America’s biggest active movie franchise, but any fan of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy could tell you that was coming; what doesn’t change is the series’ devotion to character-driven drama. In fact, it takes center stage.
The games that defined the original “Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire” are long gone in this entry; Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been taken to District 13, which exists entirely underground, where it has developed a massive operation aimed at revolting against the Capitol. President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her trusted adviser Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) try to enlist Katniss as the Mockingjay, the face of the revolution, but she requires some convincing seeing as Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is in the Capitol’s clutches.
“Mockingjay Part 1” takes on the tone of a political thriller with 13 and the Capitol engaged in a chess match and Katniss and Peeta serving as their respective pawns. This is dramatically different, almost a 180 from the previous installments — those films were about survival and the main characters’ lives were at stake; this film is about psychological warfare with the entire world of Panem at stake. Although “Catching Fire” does transition into a larger scale, it still ultimately becomes about the games.
Consequently, “Mockingjay Part 1” lacks in action and tries to make up for it in intrigue and suspense. At many points that suspense is quite effective, but screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong hope it will serve as a substitute for action sequences. Well, that’s not how blockbusters work. Ultimately, the decision to split the book “Mockingjay” into two parts feels like the real culprit for the film’s flaws. There’s a ton of build-up, but very little payoff, probably because the payoff comes in “Part 2.”
Otherwise, director Francis Lawrence really makes the most out of the story. This is a darker, much more introspective film, and seeing as those darker, introspective moments in “Catching Fire” worked so well, he doesn’t struggle making the jump with to more of them in “Mockingjay Part 1.” He’s careful to give the other Lawrence, Jennifer, the time she needs to communicate what Katniss is struggling with to the audience. The change in this film turns Katniss’ motivation from survival to something bigger — to the choice she must make about leading this revolution. Her wants and desires start to get foggy and the film does a pretty good job of making sense of her, honing in on her protective instinct.
The film also does really nice things with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). Before, they were colorful one-dimensional side characters; now, the way the start of this revolution has shaken them from their previous wants and desires comes through. We see a totally raw, emotional side of Effie, for example, that stands out among the better character components of the film. We also spend more time with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), seeing as Peeta remains rather distant from the plot of this third chapter.
All the character development is lovely, but the lack of action really makes “Mockingjay Part 1” drag. Toward the end you can really feel the plot stalling and the movie selling us small parts of the book as big climactic sequences. In order to make what was actually half of a story feel like a whole story, certain liberties need to be taken or scene/sub-plots added (take “The Hobbit” trilogy for instance). “Mockingjay Part 1” doesn’t really do that, it just tries to exaggerate what’s already there.
“The Hunger Games” franchise continues to deliver multi-dimensional storytelling and character development (in an extremely mature way for a mass-appeal PG-13 blockbuster) with “Mockingjay Part 1,” but it’s missing the fun, sit-back-and-enjoy factor a movie of its kind ought to have. Even if you disagree that a huge event movie doesn’t need to be action-packed, you can’t disagree that this one feels longer and more dragged out than it needs to be given the summation of what happens. As slow as it might be, however, it should prove to be a pretty huge set up for a more exciting and satisfying finale.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman