Katniss becomes a political weapon in the ambitious but undercooked 'Mockingjay - Part 1'
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Lionsgate
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Mahershala Ali and Donald Sutherland
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 3 minutes
November 21, 2014
(out of four)
I'm afraid the Hunger Games series appears doomed to disappoint me with its half-cocked approach to ambitious ideas. Or maybe those ideas just take a whole movie's worth of time and effort to take shape. Either way, all I keep seeing are missed opportunities - fertile and daring material that's softened or downplayed just enough to neuter the anger and revolutionary spirit lurking beneath the story.
The first film was a gutless interpretation of a disturbing setup, turning an intrinsically morally ambiguous concept into a simple-minded struggle of good-vs-evil. But those problems were somewhat remedied in last year's superior Catching Fire.
Now, in the third entry, the franchise shifts in a direction that's both courageous and potentially alienating to its core audience (and I mean that in a good way), but it never really puts its foot on the throttle. Having established Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as a true heroine in the first two movies, Mockingjay - Part 1 places her in a different role. Now safely sheltered within a burgeoning rebel force underneath the ruins of District 13, Katniss becomes, for the rebels - namely their "president," Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and top advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - more valuable as a symbol than anything else.
Her actions at the conclusion of Catching Fire may have provided a spark for the pending uprising, but now that the spark has been lit, the rebel leaders are taking care to harness it, turning Katniss into their propaganda tool of choice. She becomes the centerpiece of their underground political campaign, the star of their digitally created battlefield commercials (which bear resemblance to those recruiting ads I always see for the Armed Forces), the public face of their cause. When she goes out to the districts, she's followed at all times by a camera crew that frames, controls and for all intents and purposes creates her image. Early on we see Coin and Heavensbee vetting her viability as a Mockingjay candidate, judging her charisma, her fortitude, her ability to inspire. That the rebellion considers her a more potent weapon as a political puppet, as opposed to a fighter or battleground leader, is a fascinating direction to take the narrative, but one that somehow winds up feeling underplayed.
What the ideas seem to call for is a sharp left turn for the franchise, but instead the filmmakers go out of their way to populate the 123-minute runtime (the shortest of the series so far) with as many familiar ingredients as possible, as if intending to keep the audience on familiar ground instead of giving us the jolt the story seems eager to provide. And so they expect us to pretend that Katniss' romantic entanglements with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) matter (or ever really mattered), at the expense of much more interesting material.
There's this conflict running throughout Mockingjay between the desire to redefine itself and the need to stay the same. In the midst of the political and military gamesmanship that takes center stage, director Francis Lawrence and writers Peter Craig and Danny Strong try to fit in all the side characters we've grown attached (or at least accustomed) to, in what amounts to nothing more than a collection of glorified cameos. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) pops in for a scene or two. Finnick Odair has a couple of moments. Katniss' mom and sister are around, but hardly noticed. And of course Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), now holed up with the rebellion without the wardrobe, makeup and wigs she's long been accustomed to, is back, this time to assist Katniss as the rebels try to manufacture her into a symbol worth believing in.
Though I'm still completely at a loss as to why Katniss and everyone else seems to think Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is so special and important, the character gets his most interesting (which is to say, only interesting) function to date. He's essentially the Capitol's version of Katniss, regularly appearing on television (seemingly against his will, of course) to make the case for "peace," cry out against the rebellion and argue for the continuation of the status quo.
But beyond Katniss, few characters can do much but reintroduce themselves and wait for the movie - or the next one - to give them something more substantial to work with. The sociopolitical intrigue and the early stages of the attempted revolution are at the heart of the film - rather, they are the entire point of the film - yet both aspects feel strangely half-baked.
Mockingjay has all the makings of a smart movie, but is missing either the conviction or the ability to see it through. Somewhere buried underneath the fan service, and all the familiar-but-unnecessary characters and story elements, is a volatile thriller with the potential to be both inspirational and savagely satirical. But it ultimately sells itself short. It's not nearly as toothless as the original Hunger Games movie was, but it's certainly underwhelming compared to what it could have been. Whether that's a product of franchise requirements or a plain inability to follow through is anyone's guess. Then again, if the pattern of this franchise is any guide, I can expect next year's finale to be a marked improvement. Here's hoping history repeats itself.