When adapting a trilogy of books, it probably doesn’t make much sense to make four movies. The final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was split up into two movies, and both movies taken together are much more successful than their individual parts. Since Mockingjay, Part 2 is still a year away from being released, it’s too early to tell how much Part 2 will suffer. In order to remain faithful to the dense narrative of The Hunger Games novels, the filmmakers probably had no alternative but to split it up. Two options: Cram the plot twists and character arcs into one final installment, or allow the story to breath by stretching the story out into two final installments.
The filmmakers went with the latter decision so The Hunger Games: Mockingly, Part 1 is almost impossible to review as a standalone film. After the jaw-dropping finale of the previous Hunger Games installment, Catching Fire, in which our resolute-yet-brooding heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) fires a defiant arrow to expose the facade of the bloodthirsty “hunger games,” Mockingjay Part 1 picks up pretty much where we left off. Katniss’s love interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been captured by Snow’s government thugs, and Katniss herself has been taken to an underground bunker housing a mini-society, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore) and her consultant Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last on-screen roles). Katniss is wearied by the violence she has both witnessed and taken part in, but the rebellion needs her back in the fight. This time the fight isn’t for personal survival (the one aspect that left a rather bad taste in my mouth with the first Hunger Games installment), but for the freedom and liberty of a nation. Coin and Heavensbee need the fiery defiance she displayed in her first two games in order to gain support for their armed resistance against the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Moves and countermoves play out onscreen as Katniss adapts to her newly-found role of Poster Girl for the rebellion while the sadistic Snow parades Katniss’s captured love interest on public airwaves in the hopes of keeping her distracted and aloof.
Personally, I found the political gamesmanship much more interesting than the ‘love triangle’ subplot involving Katniss and her two potential suitors. It is when the film focuses on the larger picture of a power-mad dictator against a small but committed band of rebels that Mockingjay Part 1 soars. The film—like the two previous Hunger Games films—understands the dangers of tyranny. While the violence level of Mockingjay Part 1 fits comfortably within PG-13 parameters, there is plenty of springboards here ripe for discussing with your children who want to see the latest Hunger Games movie. The Scriptures teach us the ugly truth about ourselves that every area of our lives have been fundamentally affected by sin (Romans 3:10-18). God has never sanctioned dictatorships. Man needs accountability, not unchecked authority to rule as he likes. The consequences of tyrannical rule can be seen and—even better—understood in Part 1. The ‘soap opera’ level romantic subplots can only pale in comparison with the rest of the story which, truth be told, just isn’t very much to stretch out over two hours. The romantic conundrum between Katniss and her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) seemed forced and slowed an already sluggish pace down to a crawl. One expects some forward momentum to an action/adventure movie; I found myself bored in several spots. Some plot threads begin, other plot threads continue to be woven; in either case, nothing is resolved.
The pace picks up once the rebels mount a rescue mission for Peeta and the other “tributes” who are being held captive in the Capitol. Director Francis Lawrence builds some effective suspense around this touchy clandestine operation, and it leads to a startling revelation (although it won’t be startling to those who have read Suzanne Collins’s series of books) in the film’s final moments. Speaking of which—
—that ending. Actually, it would be more accurate to call it a non-existent ending. It almost seems as though the filmmakers knew they had to find a stopping point between Mockingjay Part 1 and Mockingjay Part 2 and picked a dramatic pause to do that. This film doesn’t end, per se, it merely pauses. The only problem with this pause is that we have to wait about 12 months somebody hits the pause button again to resume the story. It is amazing that–in an age of bingwatching an entire season of a television series on Netflix or on DVD–theaterical films still engage in the practice of making an audience wait. Then again, it could be worse. When The Empire Strikes Back was first released back in 1980, Star Wars fans had to wait an excrutiating three years until the cliffhanger-resolving Return of the Jedi. Of course, nowadays, folks can sit down and watch all six Star Wars films in a day. Someday, fans will be able to watch Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 back-to-back. Until that day comes, my advice is actually to wait. Without a Part 2 to provide resolution to its character arcs, Mockingjay Part 1 remains an enjoyable if immensly frustrating experience.
Everything is in place with this film. The production values are top-notch. The performances are superb (Jennifer Lawrence effectively broods until the point comes in which becomes the firebrand the story desperately needs). New characters are introduced. Stakes are raised. Things get extremely dark. An ending–with the characters at a comfortable stopping point (The Empire Strikes Back got this aspect right)–would have saved Mockingjay Part 1 from being what it ultimately is: the set-up to a long 12-month wait.
Fans of the books already know if the wait will be worth it. I certainly hope it will be.
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