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

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I regard the first two Hunger Games adaptations, which came out in 2012 and 2013, with significant ambivalence.  This year’s Mockingjay – Part 1, the penultimate film in the teen-aimed phenomenon, does nothing to change my mind. In fact, it only reinforces why I can never truly dismiss these movies as assembly-line, young-adult junk food, while I’m also kept from ever becoming truly invested in Katniss’ tale. For all of the flaws these movies have (most of which have the source material to blame), it’s impossible not to respect the conscious desire to elevate the franchise above being just some more thoughtless, cynical, ‘give teens what they want’ trash.

At this point, the studio could have easily gotten away with phoning in the bare minimum now that the series is a sure-fire financial success. Instead, Part 1 attempts, clearly and admirably, to be the most thought-provoking and emotionally-impactful iteration thus far. More impressive still, the movie tries to do so despite the fact that the material the filmmakers are working with this time around is complete garbage. Unlike the enjoyable first and second novels, The third ‘Hunger Games’ book often reads as though it was written by one of the series’ teenaged fans. The more likely truth is simply that it was written by an author who already knew her book would be adapted, and found it sufficient to lazily tie the series up and leave it to the Hollywood people to make into something bearable.

If this hypothesis has any validity to it, creator Suzanne Collins wasn’t wrong; somehow, those Hollywood people do succeed in making the first half of her awful book into something bearable, pretty good even. At the very least, Collins gave them a good setup to work with: Katniss has been rescued and taken to District 13, which was destroyed long ago but has been the secret base of a growing resistance movement. While Katniss struggles with her own guilt over the death and destruction she’s helped cause, she also finds herself the symbolic figurehead of the resistance, central to District 13’s propaganda and military strategy.

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Immediate advantage is taken of the fact that the Hunger Games themselves are now over, completely changing the structure from the first two movies. As the film begins, there’s a sense that this is a whole new world and anything can happen now. This narrative freshness comes across even if you’ve read the book and already know how it all ends. With this new direction comes a new visual style. Gone are the colorful, vast vistas the games provided, replaced by a more fully realized version of the dystopian world, now being ravaged thanks to the rebellion that Katniss played a central part in sparking.

I was initially turned off by the gritty black, grey and brown tones that we’re stuck looking at for just about the entire run time. It felt oppressive, drab and oddly empty, probably because Collins’ never gave enough visual detail to Panem outside of the Capitol and the arenas themselves. Later on, I ultimately found myself satisfied, though never impressed, by the picture it paints of a desolate, war-torn land. We visit a few of the different districts in well-placed moments throughout the movie. In these scenes, it’s noticeable just how much the special effects have improved since the first entry and it gives us a better picture of the scope of the rebellion. It doesn’t however, tell us much about how the Districts are physically connected and how the infrastructure of this world really works. Maybe Harry Potter spoiled us with just how rich and detailed its world was.

And speaking of Harry Potter (the series that started this trend of splitting finales into two parts), that franchise’s Part 1 and this franchise’s Part 1 share in common a quieter, more character-focused prologue to Part 2’s action-packed finale. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually think that The Hunger Games makes better use of this split than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 did. Whereas Hallows Part 1 meandered around the woods for far too long, Mockingjay Part 1 uses its slower pace to narrow in on the series most interesting thematic content: deception through media. This is a movie that, without much action to serve as distraction, doubles down on the social commentary which has been the most redeeming thing about this entire franchise.

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More now than ever, these movies reflect our current age, in which there are so many different outlets to get information and news from that it’s often hard to know who is earnest and what is real versus who is insincere and what’s been faked. For the teenage audience that makes up the franchise’s main demographic, websites like Buzzfeed will write anything to get their views, TMZ will go to great lengths to tarnish reputations and pass it off as deserved, and political leaders will use popular culture and hip lingo in an attempt to create future voters. It’s admirable that a young adult film is at least trying to say something timely and meaningful instead of delivering simple escapism. Did Twilight ever do that? Hell, did Harry Potter?

That said, the social commentary is about as blunt as can be. Adult audiences will likely find this all plays out like an awkward version of Orwellian sci-fi, though without the intellectual nuance. Or, uh, any nuance. I was appreciative then, that the movie openly calls itself out more than once on how obvious it all is. Woody Harrelson at one point pokes holes in how emotionally-manipulative the last two movie’s most pivotal moments were. Later, Philip Seymour Hoffman comments on how some of his propaganda is “a little on-the-nose, but of course, so is war.” And he’s right. When you need to convey a message (especially to teenagers), sometimes it’s necessary to be overt about it. I can’t help but admire such self-referential moments. It makes me wish the whole franchise could have been as playful and not so self-serious.

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Like the first two film installments, Collins’ authorial weaknesses are these movies’ worst enemies. Part 1 is still haunted by wooden dialogue which never failed to make me cringe, as well as too much investment in unnecessary characters and the flimsiest, most pointless of love triangles. God bless this cast, then, who commit so deeply to their roles despite the nonsense they’re so often forced to speak. It’s especially fun to see legends like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland acting in a league above just about everyone else, twisting their cliched dialogue into something workable and interesting, inflected with the pathos that Collins never really granted their characters. I was also pleasantly surprised how the change of narrative and setting shines new light on Elizabeth Banks’ Effie (who wasn’t really even in the third book) and Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, two characters who had worn out their one-note personalities by this point.

Jennifer Lawrence is as good as she has been, still displaying impressive emotional range, even if she sometimes goes a little too far with her emoting. I can’t count the number of times she trembles, horrified, in this movie, but I can tell you it was too much. It highlights the fact that she’s not very empowered in this movie, as she’s essentially being used by District 13 whenever she’s not on the verge of tears. Liam Hemsworth has a bigger presence here (and he’s still handsome so don’t worry), but his character Gale comes off as an unreasonable crybaby. The arguably less-talented Josh Hutcherson takes over the sidelined role that Hemsworth had in the other movies… so that’s good at least.

It’s always interesting to see how the cast members play their roles, because these movies have never had a consistent tone to follow. For example, Sutherland and Hoffman imbue their roles with a more serious, cerebral bent, whereas Banks and Stanley Tucci play their characters as if they’re in a slapstick comedy. The disparity between these performances have always been jarring and continue to add to the franchise’s overall lack of tonal cohesiveness. This is perfectly illustrated by two of the new characters. Natalie Dormer, as propaganda director Cressida, redeems what was a wasted character in the book with edgy attitude. But Julianne Moore, as District 13’s President Coin, is ridiculously over-the-top, and makes what should be a weighty, authorial role into something unfortunately campy.

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There are some problems with the book that the filmmakers can’t fix no matter how hard they try, and the biggest one is an overall logical incoherence. District 13’s leadership comes off as incompetent. We hear their ‘strategizing’ sessions, but they don’t sound like leaders. Their decisions lead to negative ramifications which they really should have seen coming a mile away. It’s a wonder they managed to stay alive and under ground all this time. It’s hard to take any of the story seriously when the most pivotal choices made in the film ignore common sense. And moments that should be the tensest, like the film’s “climax”, were so awkward that some of the older audience members (myself included) found themselves laughing.

I put the word “climax” in quotes above because, as the ‘Part 1′ moniker should tell you, this is an incomplete story. The ending of this movie is obviously not the ending of the book, and it shows. There’s no way to avoid the empty, unsatisfied feeling that comes with an openly-unfinished narrative arc. Along with all the other flaws the franchise has not yet rid itself of, Part 1 is probably my least favorite of the Hunger Game movies so far and I’m forced to wonder how Part 2 pans out. A lot of that stems from my knowledge that the filmmakers’ greatest challenge lays therein. As bad as the first half of the book is, the ending of Mockingjay is particularly anticlimactic, predictable, and dull.

But somehow, that just makes me want to see the next film more. I’m continually surprised that these adaptations have held together as well as they have given just how faulty so many important elements of the books are, especially in this one. Mockingjay Part 1 isn’t a great movie. Not nearly. But it’s a decently entertaining, adequately crafted one, against all odds. Somehow, like Katniss’ symbolic purpose in the movie, Hollywood keeps hope alive that maybe, just maybe, this series can pull off the big finish.

Score: 3 out of 5

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