Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material.
Running time: 123 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
Despite its action and revelations, its substantial political allegory and its strong performances from a tremendous cast, “The Hunger Games: Mockingkay — Part 1” still feels like one long placeholder. It’s an elaborate game of hurry-up-and-wait. And it’s the most shameless example yet of splitting the final book in a hugely popular series into two film adaptations.
The “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises took the same approach with some success. Actually, the absolute last “Twilight” movie is so exciting in such an insane way that deviates so daringly from the text, it almost excuses all the films that preceded it. “Mockingjay — Part 1” features some tweaks and expansion of its own in bringing the third book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy to the screen, but they do little to enhance the story. More often, they feel like filler, and they make the split seem like a rather transparent attempt to cash in twice. (And it worked: “Mockingjay — Part 1” made an estimated $123 million in its opening weekend.)
Director Francis Lawrence’s movie has some smarts and some thrills, but too often it feels like a turgid, repetitive slog, especially compared to the excitement and the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor, “Catching Fire” (which Lawrence also directed). Still, as the heroic teen Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence once again engages us by finding that tricky balance between bravery and vulnerability. Considering the diverse and mature work she’s done amid the “Hunger Games” movies, from “Silver Linings Playbook” to “American Hustle” to “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” it’s a pleasant change to see her looking young and fresh-faced again. At the same time, it feels like she’s moved beyond this YA-novel, futuristic dystopia by now.
This time, Katniss must serve as the reluctant face and voice of the revolution that is sweeping across Panem. The games are over, and we now know that the man who devised the sadistic competition, Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated), is a key figure in the rebellion. Katniss, her mother and her younger sister, Prim, are now among the refugees in the secret rebel headquarters of District 13, a massive underground bunker led by the all-business President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, in an extremely different “Boogie Nights” reunion with Hoffman). The massively overqualified cast does so much to elevate this material beyond its familiar, post-apocalyptic trappings. There’s a scene in which Hoffman, Moore and Jeffrey Wright (returning as gadget guru Beetee) are sitting around a conference table in the District 13 war room, strategizing with Lawrence as Katniss, which feels way more substantive than it might through the sheer presence of these performers.
The political satire element of “Mockingjay — Part 1” is its strength. In order to rally the people to persevere and push on with their fight, Katniss must star in a series of propaganda films. She must become the Mockingjay — the physical symbol of strength and hope — complete with a high-tech outfit, special effects and inspirational (but fake) background footage. Hoffman serves as the shrewd and sardonic puppetmaster. But another key member of Katniss’ team is her old Capitol escort, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), now deglammed in the same drab wardrobe as the rest of the folks who are lucky to be alive in 13. Effie doesn’t even appear in this section of the book, but Banks’ playful flamboyance is a welcome source of humor in this otherwise dour setting. (And while this was probably unintentional, her appearance in a makeshift turban is reminiscent of Jared Leto’s transsexual turn in “Dallas Buyers Club.”)
At its best, this subplot calls to mind the sharply cynical commentary of Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog,” with its fabricated war. But then, “Mockingjay — Part 1” believes its own hype and sends Katniss out into real scenes of battle and squalor in hopes of achieving a sense of authenticity. While Katniss’ willingness to set out among the people provides some disturbing and violent images, it also smothers the film in a suffocating sameness. The carnage and destruction in District 8 looks like District 13 looks like District 2. Every place she goes, Katniss scales a pile of bone and rubble, only to reach the top and realize there’s even more, as far as the eye can see. While Lawrence is more than capable of displaying a fiery presence, too often she’s relegated to furrowing her brow in sadness.
While the rebellion’s team is penetrating the airwaves with its feisty messages, the creepy and tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) responds in kind, airing interviews between game show host Caesar Flickerman (an underused Stanley Tucci) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’ former competitor-turned-companion. Turns out he’s alive, and he’s become the Capitol’s mouthpiece. Still, Katniss finds herself once again torn emotionally between this twisted version of Peeta and good, old reliable Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her childhood best friend. The hunky Gale is clearly the correct choice for her, although both dudes remain woefully bland.
The “Hunger Games” series has never been about Katniss’ inner conflict in the midst of a love triangle, though. It’s been about her being a bad-ass and defining herself not by a man but by her own actions, either through a selfless gesture or her strength with a bow and arrow. Yet in the most dangerous sequence in “Mockingjay — Part 1,” she’s stuck staring in frustration at a series of television monitors while the men carry out a “Zero Dark Thirty”-style rescue mission.
She — and we — will have to wait for her to reclaim her glory a year from now in “Mockingjay — Part 2.”