The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014)
There is a moment in the first third of the new Hunger Games movie – yet another “Part 1” of a two-part adaptation of the final volume in a popular young adult book series – that is the perfect encapsulation of the inextricability of movie making and movie marketing; the ultimate metafictional moment. Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant warrior heroine of Panem’s revolution, has been drafted to play the role of the “mockingjay” – the symbol of the rebellion against the Capital – and has failed miserably to deliver camera-ready performances for District 13’s propaganda team. She’s no actress, and the studio setting of the rebels’ bunker is no battlefield: Katniss is best when she’s authentic. And so the leaders send her out to visit another, recently bombed, district. While Katniss is there – camera crew in tow – the Capital attacks again, and she fires off an explosive arrow, destroying an enemy airplane, then turns and delivers – to the camera – an improvised speech that is everything her handlers have wanted. Next scene: the residents of District 13 gather to watch the short propaganda film, or “propo,” edited to showcase the highlights of the skirmish and of Katniss’s righteous battle cry. The piece ends with the mockingjay logo – the same one used on much of the marketing materials for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – accompanied by the four-note mockingjay melody – the same one used at the end of the movie’s official trailer. The movie within the movie is a tie-in for the movie, in other words.* Expect the evil President Snow to be playing with a Katniss Everdeen action figure in Part 2!
That said, this new entry in what is a hugely successful film franchise (The Hunger Games grossed almost $700 million worldwide, and it’s sequel – Catching Fire – over $850 million) is not always so crass (or clever, depending on your point of view). There is genuine feeling in the performances, and Francis Lawrence, the director of the previous movie (and also of Water for Elephants, among other works), continues to show a real strength with actors and action scenes, alike. Forever banished are the missed beats and false notes of the first film, and we feel we are in the hands of a consummate craftsman who knows how to direct his cast and crew. Mockingjay – Part 1 largely delivers on its promise to set up a rousing finale for next year’s Mockingjay – Part 2. Still, while it (more or less) holds together as a movie in its own right, there’s a certain lack of energy in the plot development that all too often reduces tension and slows things down for no apparent reason other than to fill out the half-story to feature length and make room for the conclusion. Other than the fact that the two-part series ending has become de rigeur, thanks to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and Part 2, there’s no real raison d’être for this particular movie’s penultimate status. With (much) tighter editing and another 30 minutes tacked on, we’d have one hell of a finish.
All major actors from the first two films are here again (unless their characters died, earlier), and in fine form. It’s bittersweet to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) as Plutarch Heavensbee, but there he is, good as always. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) and Liam Hemsworth (Empire State) incarnate the three sides of the central love triangle with appropriately moist eyes and trembling voices, though it’s Hutcherson, as the captured (and tortured) Peeta Mellark who gets to really act this time, as his body and mind reflect, more and more, the scars of his captivity. Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace) and Elizabeth Banks (Little Accidents) are back as comic relief (of which this gloomy film needs much more than it has), and are each perfect, as is Jeffrey Wright (“Boardwalk Empire“) as the Capital’s erstwhile tech security guy who now works for the rebellion. Julianne Moore (Don Jon) joins the cast as Alma Coin, leader of District 13, opposite the great Donald Sutherland’s (Man on the Train) President Snow. They’re all very good together.
Overall, the film is much better than its source text (which, granted, isn’t saying a lot). The first book of the series was by far the strongest and yet its cinematic adaptation was, so far, the weakest of the bunch. As author Suzanne Collins wrote books 2 and 3, she seemed to lose her way, and the final book – in particular its final half – was an underwritten mess. So far, the movies are following the reverse quality trajectory. If Part 2 has all of the strengths of Part 1 plus more energy (i.e. none of its weaknesses) and less gloom, than there’s no doubt that the finale will continue this trend. I wish they had made one movie, rather than two, but my desires are insignificant compared to the demands of the box office.
*[Noted on 11/24/14 – in this interesting article in “The New York Times,” the author discusses the innovative marketing techniques of Lionsgate, the studio which released the film.]