The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1

Directed By: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland

"Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us."
-President Snow (Donald Sutherland)

The consequences of Warner Bros. decision to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two theatrical installments still echo today as other studios have opted to follow this model with their YA adaptations.  Just look to the Twilight franchise or the Divergent series.  It's even spread to Panem with The Hunger Games finale Mockingjay being split into two parts.  I have plenty of love for The Hunger Games films, but turning this trilogy of books into a quadrilogy of movies is a pure money grab.  As President Snow says in the film, it is the things we love most that destroy us.  For studios today, that's the almighty dollar.  That's exactly why Part 1 of Mockingjay is only filler material on the road to the finale.  Granted, it's highly entertaining filler material.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) changed everything when she blew the grid in the arena at the Quarter Quell.  Though Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) make it safely to District 13 thanks to traitor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), several of their fellow victors, including her beloved Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are being held captive in the Capitol by President Snow (Sutherland).  It's not just about the victors, however.  There has been an uprising in the districts, and the Capitol has responded.  Devastating several districts including Katniss's home District 12, the Capitol hopes to put out any spark of a revolution.  However, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the rebellion, sees things differently.  She doesn't believe the burning fire for justice can be put out, not as long as the people have their Mockingjay.  There's just one problem.  The games have changed Katniss, and she is a shell of her former self.

Since the Quarter Quell, Katniss has not been eating or sleeping.  She goes to dark, quiet places to talk to herself or to a Peeta who is not there.  She has no motivation to fight anymore.  It's not all bad for this fragile, victimized victor, however.  Though District 12 was ravaged by Snow, Katniss's best friend and former lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth) was able to get her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) safely to District 13 where the rebels are headquartered.  Still, Katniss is not herself and far from ready to be the symbol the rebellion desperately needs to keep that fire burning.  Plutarch and President Coin have a plan to get her back on her feet and back on camera for the people though.  What they don't realize is that the Capitol has decided to use a tortured and confused Peeta against them in a series of interviews with talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

For a film franchise about throwing bunches of teens into giant celebrity deathmatches, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 has very little action.  There's no denying that this is a slow, brooding thriller that gradually builds intensity. More of a character study than a sci-fi action epic, Part 1 of Mockingjay doesn't rise to the heights of its predecessor Catching Fire and is definitely my least favorite in the series.  All that being said, this installment is well acted and packs a heavy emotional punch to the gut from director Francis Lawrence.  A darker entry that doesn't fully utilize the comedic talents of cast members such as Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks, Mockingjay — Part 1 is chilling filler material that mostly hits the spot as it tries to fill the Panem void on the road to the finale.

Public relations has been a recurring theme throughout The Hunger Games franchise.  It's what the tributes and victors have needed to survive.  With the lack of action or pivotal plot developments, Francis Lawrence takes this theme up a notch in Mockingjay — Part 1.  It's no longer just about the tributes or Katniss's defiant persona.  It's about the revolution.  It's a media war to win over the hearts and minds of the people to either instill fear or hope.  It's all about the propaganda.  As such, Lawrence explores the importance of balancing theatricality with authenticity to deliver the most effective messaging, particularly as it relates to Katniss in her role as the Mockingjay on camera.  It's not exactly the reason for which I come to an event film like The Hunger Games, but it's certainly interesting to watch.

Fresh from X-Men: Days of Future Past and American Hustle in the last year alone, Jennifer Lawrence should think about taking a break once Mockingjay — Part 2 and X-Men: Apocalypse wrap shooting.  She's a terrific actress, but she risks overexposure.  In her third turn as Katniss Everdeen, she starts off a fragile character unhinged from reality thanks to the tragedies that have befallen her.  A character marked more often by her brazenness and fortitude, Lawrence has more often than not given a strong portrayal of Miss Everdeen.  Here, she hits her mark in this tragic yet intriguing take on the character, but I prefer her earlier performances in the role.

Lawrence's supporting cast members don't disappoint, but they don't get a great deal of opportunity to shine.  I've already mentioned that Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are underutilized in their roles as Haymitch Abernathy and Effie Trinket respectively.  However, I would also argue that Donald Sutherland in particular doesn't get enough screen time.  A deliciously malicious villain clinging to power, Sutherland oozes with menace in every word he utters during his brief appearances on camera.  The supporting actors who do get plenty of screen time are Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.  For his part as Gale Hawthorne, Hemsworth gets the opportunity to really shine.  As it turns out, I preferred him as the quiet ex-lover who occasionally graces the camera.  In their parts as stalwart revolutionaries Alma Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee respectively, Moore and Hoffman deliver excellent, pointed performances befitting the bleak tone of the film.

Strangely, I find myself at odds with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1.  It's a clear attempt to milk a cash cow before it’s put out to pasture.  There was no need for this movie.  It's not Harry Potter.  In The Deathly Hallows, Part 1, people die, Horcruxes are destroyed, and the board is set in the wizarding world for war.  In Panem, however, the board was set in Catching Fire a year ago.  This is just a well-directed two hour promo.  Let's just get on with the finale already.  This first installment of Mockingjay gets a strong 0.06% rating.  Have a few glasses of Chardonnay with this one.