The Hunger Games has come a long way. From humble meh-ish beginnings, to a sequel that, well, caught fire in theaters, the films have gotten increasingly better the more comfortable everyone gets with the material. Going into the latest, Mockingjay- Part 1 (which is based off half of the final text in the book trilogy), that upward trend certainly continues.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1 is the pinnacle of the Hunger Games series. A payoff of two years of buildup that finally cements this series as the main example of how to do these Young Adult book adaptations. It may have taken a while to get to the peak, but the view is totally worth it.
Based off some of Suzanne Collins’ novel of the same name (to say where the cutoff point is would spoil it, sorry), Part 1 follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) just a short time after the events of Catching Fire (and for those oddly just joining, there’s a quick recap which is something I truly appreciate). As District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants to film propaganda to turn Katniss into a symbol of the coming war with the Capitol (the titular “Mockingjay”), Katniss realizes President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has been keeping Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) alive in order to send her messages. As she discovers what kind of toll the war with the Capitol has taken on the Districts (as instability reaches a fever pitch), she has to decide whether or not she wants to move forward with the fight. Also some guy named Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is there, but he still refuses to do anything notable.
To be honest, I rolled my eyes when I first heard the final book would be split into two films. When you read the book itself there doesn’t seem to be enough content to necessitate the split as the second half is really just one extended action sequence. I feared we’d get another Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows situation where one half is clearly superior to the other. With Part 1 my fears haven’t been completely alleviated, but I don’t really care. Part 1 is damn entertaining. Fixing a lot of the series’ hokier elements, and finally exploring the nature of its dystopia, Part 1 is just a massive improvement all around.
For example, the tone is handled much better than before. In the first two films, the tone fluctuated rapidly It came across as comedic at times during inappropriate moments as the love triangle was forced into the forefront, or when death fights felt less threatening because Katniss was more of a superhuman than not. But there’s no room for that here. While the darker tone might be a slight turn off (it’s unfortunately overbearing at times as there’s no ease, unless you count that one forced moment of Katniss singing by a lake), it gives weight to the world. Katniss is finally in some sort of danger and less in control than ever. And with that powerless direction, Jennifer Lawrence at last has something to work with as she’s less wooden here in Part 1 than ever.
Anchoring a set of actors who’ve found their groove, Lawrence delivers on her initial promise. As Katniss emotes for the first time in the entire series, Lawrence makes sure to nail each opportunity. For example when Katniss delivers her speech to the Capitol after some violent events in District 8, I had a huge smile on my face. I don’t know how I became so involved in a scene with such a funky set up (and it’s even more egregious in text form), but with every crack in her voice, every boom, Lawrence reels you in. And the rest of the cast is no slouch either as the freedom of the new premise (we’re no longer trapped in the “put on a show/fight in the games” setup of the first two films) gives every character but Gale something to do. Josh Hutcherson’s physicality is finally put to some use (he’s no longer lying on the ground all the time), Julianne Moore is a bit stiff but it works for her character, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s going to be truly missed as his Plutarch steals the show.
Unfortunately, Part 1 isn’t without its faults. Like most films of its ilk, it still falls into the same genre trappings as before (there’s still a weird love triangle that feels more out of place than before, Katniss is more of an “It” Girl than ever). It’s like a two steps forward, one step back situation. The film also has an odd pace issue which must be a result of splitting the story in two. A lot of the scenes feel like they’re meant for some sort of Director’s Cut as they’re extended far beyond their welcome. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy most of these scenes, but some of those longer scenes could be a deal breaker. It completely relies on emotional investment, so I could definitely see someone fighting with boredom by its end.
After my screening, I overheard a conversation between two women and it almost made me second guess myself. As the woman told her friend, “Nothing happened in that movie,” I realized exactly how someone could see it that way. You have to know what you’re getting into when a film has “Part 1” in its title. When broken down to the essential beats, Mockingjay – Part 1 is all setup for the final film in the series. But what I want you to understand is that it’s damn good setup. Sure it’s setting plot points for a later date, but there’s also an arc (as the series finally elaborates on the meaning of imagery in its world) that’s wonderfully realized here as well.
For once in this series, I truly want to see what’s coming next instead of going through the motions because I’ve read the books.
The ultimate goal of the first part of a two part film is to make the audience anticipate the second half while still feeling like a complete film in its own right. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 accomplishes that and then some (At some points it’s even better than the source material). I hope Part 2 can keep this momentum.