The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Make a long movie, chop it in two
Francis Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland
The Setup: 
First part of last book in the Hunger Games trilogy [of books, not movies].

So… in order for Lionsgate to wring as much money as possible out of the Hunger Games franchise, they have split the last book into two movies. I read the book before the movie came out, and in one way, they certainly do have enough material in the book for two movies. But in the other, there’s not really enough in the first half to justify it as its own film. Which makes it a little weird and ungainly and… well, there’s something to be said for weird and ungainly films. Although one might not be sure what it is.

Part two was a heightened retread of the first, and what can be said positively for this film, is that it completely changes the scene and the circumstances. At the end of the last one, we found out [third hand] that while Katniss was in, playing the games, the revolution started. I thought it was rather bungled from the novel [where the revelation was explosive], and ended the movie with a squish. We begin with Katniss all traumatized, and soon brought in to meet Julianne Moore as the rebel’s president, Alma Coin. She is told that the capitol [the totalitarian tyrants] have destroyed her home district, and everyone has moved to their underground bunker, where the majority of this film takes place. The revolution has started, but not quite, and they need Katniss to be the symbol of their movement, the mockingjay, in a series of propaganda videos. She says she’ll think about it.

In order to persuade her, they let her tour the ruins of her former town, where she sees widespread devastation and a big pit of burned bodies. But, this being the PG-13 Hunger Games, you see the pit of burned bodies, and they only kind of have an impact, since the seriousness of the politics and violence of this series are always present, but impact-free. Especially since her district never looked all that good anyway, and Katniss’ house is still pretty much fine. There she finds a rose from President Snow, which was a huge deal in the novel, but just kind of happens here.

It’s a situation of dueling propaganda, as the capitol broadcasts interviews with Peeta, Katniss’ competition boyfriend, and possible one true love. She didn’t know he was alive, but when she sees him, agrees to be the mockingjay if the rebels with rescue Peeta and grant him and the other players immunity. They agree, and she makes a propaganda video, which sucks. The one interesting thing about it is that it’s as wholly fake as anything the capitol would put out. But she can’t do it—she’s got to be real! So they take her to an actual battle zone, where she sees a hospital of the sick being bombed, and she issues a fierce proclamation that “if we burn, you burn,” which is turned into a a propaganda film, and soon we see a band of rebels attacking capitol guards, repeating the same line—to show us that Katniss’ words are having an effect.

She gets a camera team, who barely make an impact as characters. She is concerned that Peeta is being tortured by the capitol, which is why he’s calling to quell the revolution, which doesn’t sit well with the rebels, who eventually come around to Katniss’ view anyway, making this whole angle a non-starter. She makes another propaganda video, which inspired the rebels to bomb a dam, which cuts power to the capitol. Then Peeta warns the rebels about a bombing, which they survive handily. Then Katniss can’t make a propaganda video—she’s too upset!—so Gale makes one, showing the same pit of bodies we saw earlier.

Here comes the end of the film, with spoilers, but not serious enough to mark them as such. Probably better just to know. Finnick, another survivor, makes a propaganda broadcast which also blocks the capitol’s transmissions, as the rebels are sent out to rescue Peeta and others. We’re kind of realizing that this is going to be the climax of this film… and for a while it seems like it’s going to be a tension-filled hackathon as they try to keep computer access to the transmission system, which distracts the capitol from the rescue… but then that just kind of ends, and Katniss hears third-hand that the rescue was a success. Another film might have SHOWN the rescue sequence—even though it doesn’t involve Katniss—just to have some action at the end. But no, she just hears about it, then it’s over, and it all went fine. Then she visits Peeta, who attacks her! I thought this would have been a pretty-okay ending to the film, but no, it goes on, ending with Katniss tearfully watching Peeta thrash on a bed in the throes of withdrawal and post-trauma. The end.

So you would think that they would pull out one theme to develop this film around and give it a reason to exist on its own. And it seems that what they’ve chosen is Katniss’ concern for Peeta. The thing is… honestly, I barely remember Peeta from the first two films. He’s there, but such a non-presence, and he seems far from our main concern, Katniss. In the novels, we have a lot of Katniss’ narration, so she can tell us how much Peeta means to her, if nothing else. Here, every time he came on screen, I was like “Oh right. Him.” The other end of this tepid love triangle is Katniss’ best friend, Gale, embodied by the personality-free Chris Hemsworth. He is… well, he’d be a fabulous plastic doll Ken, if they ever decide to make a Barbie & Ken movie. He and Katniss have a lot [i.e. a LOT] of conversation in this movie, none of which particularly touches on or advances the conflict of their love triangle, or develops Katniss’ feeling about him. So while it seems like they’re pitching this chapter to be [mostly] about Katniss’ connection to these guys, not much in the movie really makes any of it compelling or moving.

If you’ve read the novel, you know that there’s some stuff coming in the conclusion, and you’d think that they would develop some of it here, but: duped again! We don’t get development regarding Katniss’ changing feelings for Gale. We don’t get much of her relationship with President Coin, although that would be very enriching and have made the conclusion that much more powerful—in addition to providing us some good fun seeing Jennifer Lawrence and Julianne Moore rub their acting chops together. But nope. And nothing about Katniss’ ambivalent feelings about the way the revolution is being run. You will notice that her younger sister is by her side most of the time, if often silent, in order that we have more of an impression of her by the time the conclusion comes.

So then, if it isn’t anything one thinks it should be, what IS it? It’s very much a middle chapter, and faithful to a fault to the book. If they’re going to cut it in half, they have to form a theme around THIS film, which they steadfastly refuse to do. There are some larger themes that play out in the conclusion—thus placing most of the interesting, rewarding content in the conclusion—and here they just reproduce the setups of the novel, without developing them into themes that will give this installment a reason to exist on its own. I thought at least we’d have a steady build-up to the impending war—which could have been easily accomplished through a shift in tone, keeping the same events—but they simply don’t. It seems they really did just make one long movie and cut it in half.

It’s too bad, because there are opportunities here. One, it’s rare in an action franchise, especially these days, to be able to slow down, take a breather, and let the characters—and themes—develop. Am I the only one—it would seem that I am—who would like it if we could have one James Bond or Star Trek film where they step away from the need to have explosive action and just have a low-key psychological development film with these well-known characters? Which is what I had hoped we’d get here, but even with all the quiet time and intimate conversations, the relationships don’t develop. It would be a fascinating departure, since Katniss was running nonstop in the first two, for her to slow down and for us to get a good chance to learn how she feels about all this. In the novel, she goes through some pretty complex emotions and realizations. In the movie—she’s upset! Lawrence spends virtually the entire movie weeping over this or that, but we don’t get to know her—which would have offered crucial and rewarding depth to the conclusion.

Still, it’s all in keeping with the rest of the series, and the way it plows through really provocative social and political content without pausing to let any of it have any real impact. This is a quality it shares with the novels, making it a persistent mystery to me whether this is a misguided approach that robs the creations of the power they could easily have, or an ingenious approach that smuggles a lot of provocative content through, under the guide of a silly teen action novel, or film. After this third film, it’s still a mystery.

Should you watch it: 

You could pretty much skip it.