The only sin is that it’s incomplete: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is only the first half of the final chapter of Suzanne Collins’ immensely popular young adult franchise, and boy, does it feel it. All setup and no payoff, the film replaces a climax with a mere story twist and ends on a cliffhanger that leaves viewers waiting until next year for a resolution.
Out of all the novels split into 2 (or 3!) for extended multiplex play – think The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and even The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, this one feels the least satisfying as its own individual story. Just imagine how this film would play out on its own, if the other films in the series didn’t exist.
But Mockingjay – Part 1 is just as well-made as its predecessor, Catching Fire – the series continues to improve upon the shaky ground established by the first Hunger Games film – timely and relevant, with a surprising satirical bite and a more adult tone than we usually get in young adult adaptations (the success of these films has led to The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Giver, among many others).
Upshot: while it doesn’t work as a self-contained feature, Mockingjay – Part 1 plays just fine for fans of the series. It’s light on both action and story development – the final half-hour, in particular, becomes something of a chore to sit through – but features some terrific character work (including Jennifer Lawrence’s finest work in the series yet) and nicely establishes a new environment and plotline, perfectly setting the stage for a rousing finale.
Mockingjay picks up where Catching Fire left off, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) now adjusting to life in the 1984-like District 13, a massive underground shelter that houses the rebels fighting against the oppressive Capital. This includes the survivors of the now-destroyed District 12, Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields), and friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) among them.
While other tributes – contestants from past Hunger Games, including Katniss’ love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – have been left behind in The Capital to suffer at the hands of sadistic President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), District 13 prepares for war: their President, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), works with ex-Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to convince Katniss to become their voice of propaganda and lead the districts in a revolt against The Capital.
Also rescued from previous films and inserted into D13: tributes Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and Katniss’ mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).
If this all sounds confusing, consider refreshing yourself on the events of the first two films before heading to the cinema – Mockingjay wastes no time recapping events for those whose memories may have faded (heck, even a TV drama – whose viewers are presumably returning after 7 days – features a Last Week On…)
The first two films had roughly the same structure: an hour of somewhat grim setup, which combined a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape with behind-the-scenes media and political satire, was followed by an hour of Running Man-like payoff as a bunch of kids were sent to the titular battle-to-the-death. These Hunger Games are terrible, the films told us, but hey: aren’t they also entertaining?
Of course, Collins is aware of this irony, and her novels are a great deal smarter than the average YA fare. Mockingjay – Part 1 is smart too – the satire here is as biting as ever as Katniss takes a camera crew into the war zones and manipulates the public – but it’s also only half of the story: we’re missing the guttural payoff that would make this stuff fun.
Still, director Francis Lawrence is able to maintain our interest even when the screenplay lacks punch. His climactic bout of intercutting rivals that of Christopher Nolan’s in Interstellar: we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen as the rebels infiltrate The Capital and Katniss watches from D13, but we’re glued to the screen until we realize waitaminute, at a story level, just why are we so invested in this?
It must also be noted that the climactic actions by both President Snow and the rebel forces don’t make a lick of sense, and things might not get better in Part 2. Mockingjay was the least well-received of Collins’ trilogy, and for all its faults, Part 1 has successfully stretched out an entire feature from the novel’s least-controversial elements.
For fans The Hunger Games – and I suppose you would have to be to get to this point, Mockingjay – Part 1 is just fine; in terms of overall quality, it’s a step up from the first movie and a small step down from Catching Fire. For anyone else, it simply doesn’t work well enough on its own to be considered satisfying by itself; as an alternative, I can wholly recommend Snowpiercer, which tells a roughly similar story in much more digestible manner (but despite being filmed in Prague, was skipped over for a local theatrical release).
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is dedicated to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who died during filming. While most of his scenes had already been filmed, script rewrites were undertaken to cover the remainder, rather than employ a digital solution.
I caught Mockingjay – Part 1 at Cinema City Nový Smíchov’s 4DX cinema, an experience I found to be surprisingly subtle and restrained; the film is not in 3D, and the lightning, fog, mist, and chair vibration and movement effects were sparse and employed only when relevant. I was happy with the experience – which didn’t detract from the film, as previous 4DX showings have – but others might be expecting a little more bang for their buck.