There’s a point in most narratives, right before the climax, where everything gets quiet. Heroes are regrouping and planning while the villain waits for the final battle to commence. Usually, this is reduced to a scene or two, brief moments of interaction and character development mixed with minimal action. But what if that moment is stretched out to a full, two-hour film? You end up with Mockingjay: Part 1, the first half of the last entry in The Hunger Games series.
Picking up shortly after the end of the last film, Catching Fire, we once again find Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) at the center of a plan to use her as a propaganda tool. This time, however, it’s in the service of District 13, the home of a massing rebellion ready to fight against the oppressive regime of Captiol. 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) sees Katniss as the symbol that will finally ignite the uprising she’s been organizing. However, the Capitol still has Katniss’ Games-partner Peeta (Josh Hutchinson), and is responding to 13’s propaganda with videos of their own using a seemingly brainwashed Peeta as their own spokesperson.
If that doesn’t sound terribly exciting in comparison to what we’ve already seen through the Games franchise, you’d both be right and wrong to believe it. Certainly, there is very little in the way of straight-up action here. However, Mockingjay: Part 1 is a film that is more concerned with the aftermath of actions, in both a real and metaphorical sense. The moves and countermoves of District 13 and the Capitol don’t exist in a vacuum, and they have real effects on the land and on the people involved, even if neither President Coin or the Capitol’s President Snow (a magnificently sinister Donald Sutherland) seem to acknowledge it. Instead of getting through the Games, this time it's about what the Games affect is on everybody, no matter if they're a contestant, spectator, or am innocent bystander.
Returning director Francis Lawrence has dialed back the sleek, colorful spectacle of Catching Fire, both visually and thematically. The colors of District 13 are muted and earth-toned, a sharp contrast to the bright whites and vivid colors of the Capitol. The mood is definitely more somber, with Katniss falling in with an entire community of battle-hardened survivors who have little use for the pagentry of the Capitol, which seems only to exist in carefully choreographed media statements. At times, the film resembles a World War II period piece more than anything else, especially during an extended sequence where District hides in deep bunkers to avoid Capitol bombers.
Even with the lack of action, there is still a lot going on here, and a lot of that has to do with the organic, efficient script by Peter Craig and Danny Strong. There is a distinct lack of superfluous dialogue, and each conversation very naturally reveals the temperaments and emotions of the characters involved. Everything from the clipped, defiant tones of a seriously de-glammed Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, winning as always) to the brusque, decidedly un-maternal speeches of President Coin seem true to the characters, even though we've only just met some of them.
Jennifer Lawrence once again proves why she’s one of the best actresses working today. She has a clear, firm grasp on Katniss, and in this film she is perhaps at the most emotionally raw and volatile point in the franchise. But then again, Katniss is at her best when she’s raw. When District 13 attempts to film studio-based propaganda with her, Katniss’ wooden deliveries of the script she’s given make it clear that she is a woman who must make her own statements, her own words. Lawrence does a fantastic job of portraying the potent mix of vulnerability, courage, and emotional fire that has make Katniss a modern-day icon.
For all the great things that happen, though, it’s a shame that so little plot development occurs. The whole film seems to exist in a temporal stasis, with little indication of the progress of time. The film focuses so much on the current that we learn little about the background of the conflict. This may be the most setting-divorced film in the series, and we learn little about Panem, the conflict between Snow and Coin, or anything else. The biggest amount of information comes when the rebellion films a live stream of fellow Games Victor Finnick Odair (an understated and wounded Sam Claflin), where he recites a laundry lists of shameful secrets of the Capitol Elite. Outside of that, the film feels relatively generic and untethered, which robs the plot that does happen of its immediacy.
The most glaring omission, though, is exploring the dynamic between Katniss and Coin and comparing it to the one between Katniss and Snow. Coin and Snow are not so different in many ways; both want to use Katniss as a tool and symbol for their own ends. Coin may be more inclined to see Katniss as a human being, but their interactions are clearly professional. To the film’s credit, it avoids making Coin a kind of mother figure to Katniss, but the scenes with Moore and Lawrence together still have the same kind of palpable chemistry as the scenes with Moore and Sutherland in Catching Fire. Still, the film only ever flirts with the idea that Katniss is being used as a tool when it should have gone deeper into exploring it.
It’s clear that Francis Lawrence is saving his energy for what is sure to be the explosive and dynamic finale of the series, but it’s still a mystery why they felt the need to split it up into two films. The book it’s based on is the same length as the others, and a judicious edit of this film spliced with a tight edit of the next would have made a fantastic, 3-hour film. Still, what we have here is a mature, intelligent exploration of the effects of war, rebellion, and propaganda disguised as a Young Adult Sci-Fi Adaptation that makes us hungry for the Games’ final conclusion.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B