March 16, 2015

by Derek Defoe

The money is there on the screen. Broad, desolate wastelands show the consequences of uprisal. Hundreds of armed soldiers gather in hordes and prepare for battle. CGI hovercrafts boom gracefully towards the screen. The budget has ballooned and the plot has been stretched thin. Mockingjay: Part 1, bides its time for other matters of importance and promises an explosive conclusion. Unfortunately, it does little else. We'll have to wait for Part 2.

It picks up directly after Catching Fire, with our hero, Katniss, having escaped the Capitol and has now found herself in the fabled "District 13" of Panem, the dystopia of Suzanne Collins' novels. Katniss is being tailored as a symbol for the rebellion, a figure of hope and defiance. In the previous films she was tailored to be a symbol of how good and generous and luxurious the Capitol can be, and how necessary the annual Hunger Games, enforced by President Snow, are to the well-being of Panem as a whole. She's on the opposite side now, still being used to push an agenda, but not without her own terms. There are amusing scenes where she is garbed in the necessary attire ("You'll be the best looking rebel in history," notes Effie, sans Kabookie makeup), she is equipped the proper jewellry (Mockingjay Pin, naturally), and is given the script to follow. She's a regular Hollywood actress to the District 13 rebellion, and the room of leaders toss ideas around in conference like a bunch of executives brainstorming the key attributes that appeal to their target demographic. They discover Katniss is more of a method actress, and bring her to trenches of war to get a genuine reaction, to spark the fire the world fell in love with. For Katniss, talk is cheap, and she needs to believe.

Believing is where Mockingjay stumbles. It has come to a point- perhaps an inevitable one- where it believes in its own story; where the bigger picture of overthrowing the oppressive government needs to be addressed and needs to be concluded. There was a delicate dance to the first Hunger Games, and to Catching Fire, where Katniss needed to work within certain confines and use her cunning to work within that box: to not disturb the natural order, to save the ones she loves, and to survive. Taking down the system may be too tall of an order here. Orwellian heroes have tried and failed in similar circumstances. Orwell, this is not.

I think Collins has found a perfect formula for young adult fiction and I don't think there's anything wrong with the wide appeal of the material. It's better written and less insulting than the likes of Stephanie Meyer, with a female lead of substance: Katniss is strong, resourceful, and intelligent. This is a character young female readers can get behind. There's a lot of violence so young men will have no problem reading it, either. It does not rely on its love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale -- though it's there if you need it. Often times President Snow feels like the strict father and Katniss is the rebellious daughter. Maybe a final twist awaits in Part 2. Mockingjay is the only one of the three books I haven't read, so who knows? I've heard it's the weakest in the trilogy, so it seems like an act in vain to split the book into two movies in order to make more money, ahem, I mean do the story justice. Collins' story, and in turn this film, and likely the next to follow, believes its own hype, and the importance of its own story. I care for Katniss, but not so much the fate of Panem.

The Hunger Games made Jennifer Lawrence a star. In the three short years since the release of the first film in the series, she has become America's Sweetheart, she's won an Oscar, and has found herself as one of the best and most intriguing actresses working today. She's as good as ever here, but maybe she's outgrown the material. The cast features an unusually high number of accomplished actors here. You'd imagine that talents such as Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and Stanley Tucci are now heroes to their kids and nieces and nephews and all relatives under 18 for being a part of these movies. You'd imagine Donald Sutherland's grandkids must love hating him in the role of the evil President Snow. The film is dedicated in loving memory to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who in one of his many scenes of motivational jargon remarks, "Anybody can be replaced!" Not you, Mr. Hoffman.

Mockingjay: Part 1 is entertaining to an extent, but it stops short because this needs to be concluded at a later time because these movies make obscene amounts of money and why should they release 3 of them when they can release 4? It's half a movie and I give it half a recommendation- not that the final movie will make any less money and not that it will stop me from eventually seeing it, though I'm not sure I've been kept in the proper amount of suspense. I think we all know more or less how things will turn out. But you never know. Maybe Katniss' rebellion will fail. Maybe President Snow will reign supreme. Maybe the Hunger Games will continue and there'll be more ticket sales.

Directed by
Francis Lawrence

Produced by
Nina Jacobson
Jon Kilik

Screenplay by
Danny Strong
Peter Craig

Based on
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Jennifer Lawrence
Josh Hutcherson
Liam Hemsworth
Woody Harrelson
Elizabeth Banks
Julianne Moore
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Stanley Tucci
Donald Sutherland

Music by
James Newton Howard

Jo Willems

Edited by
Alan Edward Bell
Mark Yoshikawa