Here it is, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, the latest addition to this little franchise known as the “Hunger Games,” the franchise which is only the tentpole for every young adult adaptation on the planet. But what’s there to say about this installment? Struggling to find words is a not so good indicator. It seems stagnant at points; the love triangle appears clumsy. It is basically a bridge from the Quarter Quell in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” to the climactic resolution to come in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.” Behind a passive screenplay, the acting talent doesn’t have much to work with, though the “usual suspects” still manage to shine through. They save this film from winding up in the land of eternal criticism, where other noteworthy underperformers must battle it off, to the death . . .
These saviors fall to a predictable few: Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”) as Katniss, Philip Seymour Hoffman (“A Most Wanted Man”) as Plutarch and Elizabeth Banks (“What to Expect When You’re Expecting”) as Effie. Still, the lack of narrative aggression (shall we say fire?) here effectively smothers the flames that raged on the sequined dress of Lawrence in her previous outings.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 picks up right where its predecessor left off. Plutarch has brought Katniss to District 13’s underground, fortified bunker. The District was effectively wiped off the grid by bombings from the Capitol, but under the leadership of District President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, “Non-Stop”), a revolution has been brewing underground, where everyone now resides. Katniss, safe with her mother (Paula Malcomson, “Ray Donovan” television series), sister Primrose (Willow Shields, “The Hunger Games”) and boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, “Paranoia”), now wants to know what has become of her other boyfriend, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”). She soon learns, thanks to Panem-wide broadcasts, that Peeta has become a captive in the Capitol. He urges Katniss to silence the rebellion.
However, under the direction of Plutarch, Katniss becomes “the mockingjay,” a powerful symbol of revolution. She inspires others to fight and the dignitaries recognize this. They assign her to an outlaw film crew with Cressida (Natalie Dormer, “Game of Thrones” television series) and push her out onto the battlefield to obtain “spontaneous” and inspiring shots firsthand. Still, though, Katniss cannot escape the wrath of the White Rose — President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland, “Horrible Bosses”) — and she realizes that anything she inflicts on the Capitol is returned tenfold on her and her fellow revolutionaries. How will she respond to Snow and the Capitol when fighting fire with fire is a failing course of action?
In terms of aesthetics, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 does not disappoint. All of the preceding films are visually stunning — with wide shots of a dystopian “prince and pauper” world down to fine detailing of French Revolution-esque clothing worn by the Capitol-born — so this is not a surprise. It’s also hard to not notice the stark color contrasting at play in director Francis Lawrence’s camera. Bright whites versus dark silhouettes are used with abandon, making it easy (or lazy) to distinguish who is supposed to be good and who is supposed to bad. And like the “Star Wars” franchise, there are plenty of visual motifs that have societal messages tucked away throughout the film begging to be deciphered (look at the rose, the bird on the pendants and the attire of those in hiding or in captivity).
On production values, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 has its moments too. Alan Edward Bell and Mark Yoshikawa seamlessly edit the picture, the score by James Newton Howard fits in neatly to the proceedings and the direction which boils down to “highlighting character emotion at all costs; anything outside of that is ambience” is competent. In a way, it works. In another way, it gets soppy and contrived after a while.
Katniss does do a fair amount of growing — never one to be told what to do, she must come to terms with being the face of the uprising and used as a propaganda piece (while sorting her feelings for both the wooden Peeta and Gale). The issue isn’t with her internal strife, however, it is whether an entire movie needed to be dedicated to it. And while this chopped narrative by scribes Danny Strong and Peter Craig is better than say, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” it still feels like a half of a story drawn out to appear like a full one. We could select a few key moments and skip ahead to the final chapter and feel completely content.
Nonetheless, even if you’re only a middling fan of the series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is still recommended watching. The change of tone — complete with espionage and covert missions — is a welcomed break from the Games even though it feels to be dragging on. And at least the cliffhanger it leaves us with gives reason to absolutely want to see the finale.