The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Danny Strong, Peter Craig, Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 123 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After being rescued from the destroyed arena in the 75th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, along with fellow Victors Beetee and Finnick Odair, are taken to District 13, an underground rebel facility hidden beneath the ruins of the old District 13, where she is reunited with her mother and sister Prim, and is introduced to President Alma Coin the rebel leader. Katniss’ actions in the arena have sparked riots and strikes against the Capitol, and Coin wants her to become the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of the rebellion, but Katniss refuses until she sees the results of a Capitol bombing campaign and Peeta Mellark, her portrayed boyfriend, being used by Capitol state television to try and quell the rebellion…
This whole ‘splitting a single book into more than one film’ thing seems to be primarily driven for lucrative rather than artistic reasons. It didn’t work too well for the final two Harry Potters, and, though we have just a little while to wait before the third picture come out, it certainly isn’t working well for Peter Jackon’s Hobbit trilogy, especially when he packs the films with lots of stuff that isn’t in the books at all. Of course commercially it’s all working out fine but I reckon once the dust clears more and more people will see the Hobbit threesome as a major conceptual misstep. Anyway, they’re doing it again with The Hunger Games, and I was expecting the worst with the first Mockinjay episode which many are already complaining moves too slowly and doesn’t have enough action. For better or worse, this is a very different film to the first two, which are very similar, the second one, at least in its second half, being pretty much a bigger, better remake of the first one.
Yet it’s actually rather good. The first half is overly repetitious and has some material which could have been cut. In fact, it sometimes seems like it’s just rehashing the same scene over and over again, even in different locales and with some different characters. The film does a good job of getting through to us how bad things really early on, but it feels obliged to ram home the point time and time again, and through variations on the same dialogue rather than showing us stuff. I suppose the PG-13/12A rating precluded the filmmakers a little in this respect, though actually, despite the dark mood, this is a less brutal film than the first two. Director Francis Lawrence still shows his knack for making a death have considerable impact – a series of public executions is mostly conveyed through having one occur as a reflection in a soldier’s helmet – but considering what the first film, especially, got away with, I’m sure they could have found a way to show, or give an impression of, for example, children being made to fight in an arena which apparently occurs in the book. I guess the filmmakers were reacting in the way they thought was best to complaints about the supposed excessive violence in the first two films, films supposedly aimed at teenagers.
Almost entirely avoiding the lavish colour which comprised some of the last one, this third episode, which mostly takes place either in a huge underground bunker or amidst wreckage, is very grey and dingy, which doesn’t make for a visually appealing piece but certainly differentiates itself from what’s come before. For me, it’s a good example of the way the film makes a huge effort to be different to its fore-bearers even if some of some of the differences didn’t appeal much to me much personally. An especially subversive touch, which is a bit infuriating but admirable, is that Katniss doesn’t really do a lot. Okay, she takes out two gunships with a bow and arrow in a ridiculous bit that doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the film, but otherwise all she really does is wonder about some ruins, make a couple of videos, play with a cat and watch TV. She’s used throughout, but doesn’t even get to go on the mission that she wants to, and ends the film in a not dissimilar way from the way she started it, in mental agony, only the second time she’s watching somebody else go through far worse trauma than her.
In fact, if Mockinjay – Part 1 didn’t have much of the same cast, you probably wouldn’t even think it had anything to do with the previous films except for the same themes like control of the poor and media manipulation, the latter of which is developed considerably in this one, but it would be silly if it just had Katniss playing some more games. This episode is primarily about a brewing revolution, and there are times that it fills like filler, advancing the plot a little but not having much content, though not as frequently as I expected. Even I got tired of the number of times people walked through rubble, but there are nonetheless many strong moments, like after Katniss has been recruited to be the propaganda tool of the rebels. She seems to be unable to give any speeches without any conviction, and it’s always fun to see good actors or actresses pretend to be bad ones [this is probably the closest the film comes to humour], but she finally comes into her own when she witnesses some Capitol aggression first hand, speaking with such force and passion you may feel like standing up and marching on the government yourself [if Jennifer Lawrence rather than the odious Russell Brand called for revolution, we’d probably be in power right now]. If this doesn’t get you going, than there’s another great bit when a song is sung while rebels are marching on a dam. That’s one of the things I like about this franchise – it has intelligence to match the escapism – but is also unafraid to be genuinely emotive in a way few films seem to be trying to be at the moment. And it certainly doesn’t waste time on sappy romance, in fact Peeter is hardly in the film, though he features in some of its strongest and most quietly disturbing moments.
Around the half way mark the film certainly gives us plenty of action, though paradoxically, it seems to rush through it, notably an attack on a dam which is almost thrown away, though considering the poor CGI used it’s possible that was a good thing. Unfortunately, Lawrence again decides to have the cinematographer [though I would barely consider this cinematography] shake the camera about at scenes like this so you can’t see what’s going on and feel sick, though these scenes are quite short. One important sequence near the end has its most climax mostly occur off-screen, which is subverting audience expectations too much for what is still, in the end, a popcorn flick, if a thoughtful one. The reticence works best for a bombing sequence where we spend the entire time with the characters being bombed and mostly in close-up where each shake and bang has quite a frightening effect. Elsewhere there’s considerable attention to detail throughout, like the girl present at an address by President Snow who starts to un-plait her hair, and even signs of some ambiguity. The set-up of the last film left our sympathies with the downtrodden masses as they revolted against the privileged elite, but this one starts to muddy the question. President Coin doesn’t seem entirely untrustworthy and her motivations shady, while there’s a slightly disturbing aspect to the uniformity of the rebels. I hope the last film [I haven’t read any of the books] continues this theme, though one of the most interesting aspects of this franchise, especially this third instalment, is how things refuse to pan out the way you expect them to.
Liam Hemsworth’s performance really comes into its own – this is one of those franchises where even the weaker performers seem to improve as time goes by – with some speeches his character Gale has to give, while Donald Sutherland’s Professor Snow becomes as Boo Hiss as anyone could want a villain to me, ordering the destruction of a hospital with lip-smacking relish. The late great Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, who at one point actually says: “Anyone can be replaced”, had some of his lines given to other characters, though I couldn’t tell this. Some of the new characters are given short shrift and James Newton Howard’s score is barely noticeable, but overall, Mockinjay – Part One, if conceptually flawed, is an admirably brave sequel that I feel may seem considerably better when we get the second part.