The Odds Are Ever in Its Favor: ‘Mockingjay - Part 1’

Mockingjay -- Part 1 proves that a stellar cast and some meaningful direction can take a dreary storyline and turn it into the ultimate penultimate film.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth
Rated: PG-13
US Release Date: 2015-03-06

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1, the next-to-last installment in the Hunger Games film series, is all rising tension and absolutely no resolution for the (somehow) still reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. The odds are ever in its favor. Mockingjay -- Part 1 is such a triumph of production design, visual effects, costuming, and acting, that it feels almost impossible to dislike, even though you’ll despise how abruptly it ends, whether you’ve read the book or not.

Remember how unsatisfied you were with the ending of Empire Strikes Back the first time you saw it, when the heroes were defeated and left looking out a window? Comparatively, in that regard, Mockingjay -- Part 1 is much more disappointing; it’s essentially a two-hour set up for the franchise’s finale that’s scheduled to be released in November 2015. Not to mention what Katniss sees through a window right before the credits roll is much more harrowing than Luke and Leia witnessing Lando take off in the Millennium Falcon. Yet Mockingjay’s effective build to its conclusion is a credit to everyone involved.

While even the most die-hard fans of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy will agree that her third book is easily the worst, it’s the novel that has been inexplicably stretched into two films when it could have just been one epic movie. In an age where The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn became two movies and The Hobbit became a full-on bloated trilogy, the expansion’s not actually that surprising; though it’s probably not necessary.

However, the film is all in all so engaging that it’s hard to cry, “foul”, “inflation”, or “cashgrab”.

Director Francis Lawrence (who returns from Chasing Fire) and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig give the storyline a forbidding sense of urgency that is largely absent from the lackluster novel. Plus, while there are great performances across the board, Jennifer Lawrence’s winsome, layered portrayal of Katniss makes the protagonist much more compelling than Collins’ Katniss seemed on the pages that inspired the movie.

The film begins with Katniss hospitalized and devastated from her second Hunger Games competition. Rescued by central characters (that were actually revolutionaries) at the end of the previous film, she is now hidden away in the immense underground bunker of District 13, the heart of the rebellion against the nefarious Capitol. Unfortunately, her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was not rescued with her, and so Katniss spends the entire film wandering around, desperate to get him back from the clutches of the Captial’s nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She watches Peeta’s interviews on the Capital’s TV broadcasts, notices his emaciated figure and broken spirit and sobs, “What have they done with him?” (To a fault, there’s too much time in this film spent watching people on screen watch people on screen.)

As to be expected, Katniss also butts heads with the leaders of the rebellion -- including President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her propaganda master Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- who are intent on using her as the public symbol of the rebellion in a series of rousing videos (“propos”) to spread their cause. Katniss goes on a few eye-opening journeys to the other districts at war with the Capital, putting her life at risk while a camera crew follows her. As Katniss tells Coin when the District 13 President protests such dangerous exploits, “Make sure you get it on camera.”

Most of the movie takes place either at night or in underground bunkers, making it visually darker and less fantastical in tone. This is the first motion picture in the series where there are no outlandish creatures, no frenzied Hunger Games competitions, and no eccentric fashion statements on display at the Capital. There’s a subdued level of realism here. Additionally, the constraints of the film’s scope easily make the action feel all the more confined, which allows for some meaningful character development.

Along course of the film, many characters are permitted to grow and develop, save for maybe Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Gale (Liam Hemsworth) becomes a leader and determined fighter, not just a dreamy third of a love triangle. The warrior Finnick gets to reveal some of his emotional scars. Even the flamboyant Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) spends the film making do without her elaborate wigs and wardrobe, which leaves her sulking in her marzipan head scarf.

And while repeated viewings make it clearer that Katniss doesn’t actually do all that much in this two-hour movie -- except film some commercials, shoot a few arrows, ache for Peeta, and save Prim’s cat -- her tears, righteous anger, compassion and growing fears are further proof of the character’s strength and relatability and, correspondingly, Lawrence’s acting chops).

There’s lots and lots of talking to a camera in the film’s climax; Katniss doesn’t even accompany the larger-than-life mission to the Capital to save Peeta. This ending beautifully sets the stage for the action-packed resolution that’s coming in Part 2. Like Hoffman’s character says earlier in this penultimate film, “They’ll follow her". In spite of some minor imperfections, the well-crafted emotional magnitude of Mockingjay -- Part 1 confirms we’ll do the same.

The Blu-ray disc edition of the film includes some of the best special features to accompany a recent release, most notably a series of genuinely interesting, in-depth making-of featurettes (covering everything from the costume design to the stunt work to Jennifer Lawrence’s embarrassment at her own singing) that total a satisfying runtime of more than two hours. Also included is a fitting tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman from the movie’s cast, reminding us that amidst a fictional world filled with death and devastation, a genuine loss is all too tragic.

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