After the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is living in District 13, the secret underground headquarters for the rebellion that seeks to overthrow The Capitol and free the country of Panem. While Katniss’ actions in The Hunger Games have sparked rebellion across the country, she’s reluctant to lead the rebels and is traumatized from the many horrific things she has experienced, most notably the destruction of her home of District 12 by The Capitol. But she must choose her future and the future of the country when she becomes The Mockingjay, the face and spirit of the rebellion.
While summing up the setup for Mockingjay Part 1 should not constitute a spoiler for the film, it actually gives away far more of the story than you may expect. That’s because barely anything happens in this movie. Entire character arcs can be said in a handful of words and the place where the story concludes is not far from where it began. That’s because this is the adaptation of half a novel. A novel where the most memorable, and shocking, events happen in rapid succession within the second half, none of which are included here.
Thankfully, Mockingjay Part 1 manages to avoid being a waste of time thanks to the strong performances and memorable world that fill the screen. As always, Lawrence helps make Katniss into a strong and relatable hero, even when her actions beg for you give up on her. She’s a difficult protagonist. While her post-traumatic stress disorder and strong will make her more layered and human than most heroes, she still resists the forward momentum of the plot. It doesn’t help that she spends the vast majority of screen time locked down in the underground bunker of District 13, whose residence seem to live within the Kyln prison from Guardians of the Galaxy, except with fewer sentient raccoons and trees to liven things up.
In truth, most of the characters have little growth, since their arcs are to be finished within another movie entirely. However, several performances shine through. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman in particularly puts on a nuanced and deep performance as Plutarch Heavensbee, one of the brains behind the rebellion. Even with a thankless role, he’s utterly magnetic in a manner that strengthens the film as a whole. He was a true acting master, a fact that is evident even when he’s a small cog in a blockbuster franchise.
Once again, Woody Harrelson excites as the rough and surly Haymitch Abernathy, whose gruffness is more charming than off-putting, even when slinging insults at his friends. While additions like Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin and the film crew that are dedicated to creating Katniss’ propaganda campaign against The Capitol help fill out vital roles, they are not much more than a means to an end. There is so little to be done in the story that it is difficult to find anything to latch onto with these new roles.
And of course, no Hunger Games review can be complete without a tip of the cap to Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who wastes away on screen thanks to a healthy dose of CGI, and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who is clearly not worthy to wield Mjolnir, the young men who have simultaneously divided Katniss’ heart and caused legions of young girls to go to war with one another over who is the hero’s true soul mate.
It’s actually Haymitch, naturally.
When I say that not much happens in Mockingjay Part 1, it’s not an exaggeration. Not much really happens. Katniss has little character growth within this chapter. Her biggest decision is to become the symbol of the rebellion, but that choice happens within the film’s first act. The rest deals with her visiting various Districts and connecting with her fellow rebels. Like the novel, she’s left out of most of the action, as she’s the embodiment of the revolution, rather than its leader. Her one moment of heroism is thrilling, but it’s a minor part of this two-hour tale.
Unlike Suzanne Collins’ novel, however, the scope of Mockingjay Part 1 is not limited to Katniss’ point of view. Scenes cut to the mustache-twirling villainy of President Snow, the relationships of her fellow rebels and friends, and the acts of rebellion popping up in other Districts. As was done with the previous two movies, showing more of the characters outside Katniss helps to give greater context and understanding of both the events transpiring and those involved. However, unlike the previous films, the new additions help to supply a needed dose of action.
Yes, this is a Hunger Games movie that is sincerely lacking in thrilling sequences. While this is not a series that is solely sold on thrilling action sequences, it is a series that has had its previous entries completely focused on dystopian competitions involving combatants murdering each other. To suddenly remove the action is to leave Mockingjay without means of forward momentum. Which is why there are multiple sequences of severely under-equipped rebels enacting all sorts of Daffy Duck-like schemes. They scurry up trees! They rush headlong into machinegun fire! They sing old sea chanties as they march to their death! Their bravery is somewhat inspiring in a lemming-like way.
The plain and simple fact is that this movie is all set-up for Part 2. Like the effect that was felt by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2, the second half of this adaptation is sure to be chocked full of action and lacking in storytelling nuance. The first half is left with making you care what happens to these characters. But two halves of a whole do not make a complete tale when they are separated into two movies that debut one year apart.
Yes, splitting a book into two parts is a sure fire way to make double the amount of money that would have been made if it had only been made into one film. No, that does not mean that the adaptation becomes twice as enjoyable. Movie math makes the most sense when it is applied to box office figures, not what makes an enjoyable narrative.
Will Mockingjay Part 2 be a successful narrative on its own when so many of its events center around the disturbing deaths of long-loved characters. Will devoting a separate film to setting up the motivations of characters before they are thrust headlong into battle make nonstop action feel more meaningful?
That awaits to be seen. But the odds may not be in its favor. (Nailed it!)