In an age where there is an assortment of film franchises aimed at the “young adult” demographic, I’m grateful that a series like The Hunger Games exists. While it is unquestionably targeted at teenagers, the films do an excellent job at treating the entire audience as mature moviegoers. There’s plenty of smart political and social subtext scattered throughout the series to appeal to adults who have not read the source material. At the same time, the series does contain the standard “love triangle” and trivial romances that seem to run rampant in almost every “young adult” franchise. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but the latest film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1, struggles with balancing the love story with the political allegory of revolution. It also falls short in successfully capitalizing on the trend of splitting the final novel into two parts. As a result, this film feels like a strong filler episode of a TV series as opposed to a stand-alone film.
Picking up directly from the previous film Catching Fire, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in the supposedly destroyed District 13, which is on the verge of a revolution. After being told by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) that her actions have sparked civil unrest and riots within the various districts, she agrees to become the symbol (the titular Mockingjay) of the proposed revolution through the production of propaganda. Her agreement stems from her motivation to rescue fellow champion (and supposed “boyfriend”) Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Panem Capitol.
Compared to the previous two films, Mockingjay- Part I is a very different beast. It’s simultaneously the darkest and most mature film of the series so far. The titular games are absent in favor of a battleground entirely driven on the utilization of political propaganda and social revolution. It’s here that the film largely succeeds, as the filmmakers do everything in their power to draw support for the revolution. The authoritarian government lead by President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is as despicable as ever. They bomb hospitals, execute any and all rebels, and repress the people of Panem through fear and propaganda. It’s extreme to be sure, but it does present a compelling scenario reminiscent of historical dictatorships. The exploration of how media influences the public is perhaps the greatest strength of the film. There’s several candid interviews between Peeta and the flamboyant Capitol puppet Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) that demonstrate how slanted promo spots effect the populous. Katniss and the revolution begin using canned speeches in digitally rendered backgrounds, but these fail because of a lack of genuine emotion. The manipulation that the Capitol uses is not reciprocal. I find this really fascinating; Katniss has to film from the ruins of Panem in order to properly demonstrate conviction. These kind of scenes fill up the majority of the film’s runtime. Because of this, there’s not a whole lot of action since presumably it is being saved for the second half set for release next November.
Although I never found the film to be tedious of boring, the lack of action does prove to be a flaw. There’s a great deal of tension throughout, but it never truly peaks until the third act rescue mission. It feels rather padded out, especially given that the source material is not in my opinion justified for splitting into two separate films. I’ve never been a fan of this choice save for the last installment in the Harry Potter franchise, which was so dense with the material that it wouldn’t do the book justice as one film. This choice makes the film feel more like set up and filler. I compare it to an episode on Hershel’s farm from The Walking Dead; it’s enjoyable while you’re watching it but doesn’t warrant a rewatch on its own without the second half at your disposal.
I’ve never been sold on the “love triangle” in this franchise to begin with. Lawrence is a fantastic actress, but she doesn’t have much romantic chemistry with either Hutcherson or best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). In the first film, I felt that all the emotional moments fell flat and lacked any genuine soul. This is partially by design; Katniss did not realize Peeta was really falling for her until the end of the first movie. Catching Fire improved on this dramatically, but here it reverts to the first film again. In addition, it makes Katniss rather detestable. All of her actions stem from a desire to rescue Peeta. Even when she sees horrific displays of violence and destruction, her first priority is to inquire about Peeta’s wellbeing. The way she pines for Peeta but rejects Gale (who clearly has feelings for her) draws too many unwanted comparisons to Twilight, which is not a good thing. The love elements undermine a lot of the strengths of the political and social commentary. It doesn’t bring the whole film down, but it feels like a big step back.
On the note of actors, The Hunger Games feels very much like the American counterpart to Harry Potter. There’s a great collection of supporting roles performed by master class actors. Characters like Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) provide most of the welcome comic relief. Revolution architect Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), is given fleshed out motivations and acts as a proper guide for Katniss. Sutherland as the primary antagonist makes the most of his limited screen time with smug veneer and cunning. The wide cast of characters makes the world feel much more expansive and help to explore the various themes.
I cannot blame director Francis Lawrence for the decision to split up the book into two films, but I do criticize the decision regardless of who authorized it. It reeks entirely of financial based reasoning and as I said, the movie feels like a filler episode. Catching Fire ended on a true cliffhanger; this film ends with a whimper that cheats a sense of payoff. With so much buildup and emotion during the movie, it doesn’t leave a sense of anticipation. It’s a great deal of set-up with a not entirely satisfying cut off point.
Review – ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I’