Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks
Francis Lawrence

Upset over Lionsgate’s decision to release “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” as two films instead of one? Blame Harry Potter. That was the first movie franchise based on a popular book series to split its last installment into the dreaded two-part finale. But while that decision appeared to be made only partly due to studio greed (this was Harry Potter, after all, and it was an event meant to be celebrated and savored), every successful YA book-to-film adaptation since has taken it upon itself to use a similar strategy for no other reason than to squeeze more money out of moviegoers. The “Hunger Games” trilogy (except that it’s no longer a trilogy at all) is the latest series to go this route, and quite predictably, it’s resulted in a “Part 1” that’s almost completely void of excitement, proving once again why this model is never a good idea.

After being rescued from the Quarter Quell by a secret resistance group headed by former Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is transported to District 13 along with her fellow Tributes, Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and the survivors of District 12. It seems that Katniss’ actions in the last Hunger Games have stoked the flames of rebellion throughout Panem, and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) intends to use her as the figurehead for the revolution. Katniss agrees on a few conditions – namely, that they rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s being tortured and used by the Capitol as the voice against the resistance, as soon as possible – and begins filming a series of propaganda videos intended to recruit more soldiers for the war effort.

One of the biggest problems you typically run into with two-part finales like “Mockingjay” is that the filmmakers are no longer forced to think economically in terms of what material is essential to telling the story. Though it made sense to split up “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” due to the sheer size of J.K. Rowling’s book, “Mockingjay” doesn’t have that issue, especially when “Catching Fire” (which is the exact same length in book form) was adapted just fine into one movie. Add to that the fact that “Mockingjay” is hands-down the weakest entry in the series, and it was always going to be an uphill battle for director Francis Lawrence and writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig. There are some really powerful emotional beats littered throughout, but it often feels like Lawrence is just twiddling his thumbs in fear of getting too far ahead, with most of the film spent setting up the next installment. It’s a necessary slog in order to get to the good stuff (and one that fans of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series will be all too familiar with), but it’s a slog all the same.

The only thing that saves “Mockingjay – Part 1” from being a complete bore is the rich cast of characters, both new and returning. Jennifer Lawrence and Julianne Moore are the only actors with any real meat to their roles, but at least Liam Hemsworth finally gets more to do this time around (effectively swapping places with Josh Hutcherson, who’s only in a handful of scenes), while Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin and Woody Harrelson all make the most of their limited screen time. In fact, while most of the supporting actors are consigned to only a few scenes each, it’s in these moments where the film shines the brightest; and that’s quite a feat considering just how dark this movie is, both visually (the colors are so washed out that it’s like watching with sunglasses on at times) and thematically.

The first two films were also bleak due to the nature of the subject matter, but they found ways to inject some much-needed levity as well, and that’s something “Mockingjay” lacks. Of course, the same could be said of its surprising shortage of action, with only two decent set pieces (including an intense military extraction sequence) over the course of its 123-minute runtime. The absence of an actual Hunger Games plays a part in that, but anyone who’s read Suzanne Collins’ novel knows that “Mockingjay” is essentially a war movie, and unfortunately, “Part 1” is tasked with handling all the boring politicking (as well as Katniss’ incessant moping) that precedes the combat.

Francis Lawrence deserves a lot of credit for turning a mediocre book like “Catching Fire” into one of the best films of 2013, but he was walking into an impossible situation with “Mockingjay.” Although the great performances and promise of what’s to come help offset the listless pacing and general needlessness of splitting the final book into two movies, the whole thing feels like one giant tease for “Part 2.” It’s like bringing out dessert before your kids have even finished their vegetables. You know it’s going to be worth the wait, but that doesn’t make it any less of a dick move.