The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I isn’t a bad movie at all, but there’s definitely something off about it. It doesn’t have the same kinetic energy as the first two installments, and the dreary dystopia feels more oppressive than in previous movies. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that the series, like Katniss Everdeen herself, has matured, and the stakes are higher here even than the survival of the main character: Now it’s about saving all of Panem from its grim, totalitarian leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
But the film, directed by Francis Lawrence, also feels rote at times, more of a placeholder designed to get us to the finale next year. Knowing what we know — that Part I will not bring us any real resolution — even the audience is forced to go through the motions: We know where we’re supposed to feel a sense of fear, but we also know that while the lives of the major characters are clearly in real danger, they’re not likely to succumb to it until Part 2.
In a way, the suspense in Part I derives not from the story itself, or the fate of the characters, but in where Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig will find the middle point. Will Part I end in a minor triumph? Will it end at a low point? Or, like the second Hobbit movie, will it simply end mid-sequence, on a cliffhanger that doesn’t hang?
Mockingjay takes a while to pick up any steam. The first act feels like an interminable establishing shot, designed not to advance the plot but to reinforce the threat posed by President Snow. He obliterated Katniss’ District 12 moments after Katniss escaped from the Hunger Games: All Star Edition, leaving only a small number of survivors behind, including Gale — who was transported to District 13 to fight along with the rebels.
Katniss herself is out of sorts, upset that she was involved in a scheme of which she had no knowledge to be pulled out of the Hunger Games and recruited into the cause. She’s even more upset that she was spared while Peeta — who becomes the mouthpiece for the Capital — was left behind and picked up by President Snow. Katniss spends too much of the film mourning his fate, while Gale is left with little else besides “fuck that guy” grumbles and empty heroic stares into the distance.
Meanwhile, Rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and its leading propagandist, Heavensbee Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have to work to get Katniss to be their Mockingjay, the symbol of the revolution. That means visiting the wreckage of District 12, as well as the what’s left of District 8 to help inspire her to the cause. Much of the film is an agitprop war between the Rebels and President Snow, with Peeta on one side, and Katniss — and her publicity crew/bodyguards (including Natalie Dormer) on the other. (Dormer, for the record, isn’t asked to do much, but she and her half-mohawk bring some welcome spark to her scenes).
Jennifer Lawrence, of course, is every bit as good as the film itself is underwhelming. If there’s anyone that can transcend the YA dystopian cliches, it’s Lawrence, who is electric even in her most somber moments. She carries Mockingjay — Part 1 on her back, while the lesser Hemsworth hangs from her shirttails like a dead body being dragged through a swamp. Peeta, on the other hand, is finally able to show another side of himself besides as the puppy-dog hanger-on of Katniss in the first two films, and Hutcherson is surprisingly up for the challenge. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie and Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch are reduced to background players, but they are effective with their limited screentime. Julianne Moore plays the Rebel president with perhaps too much restraint, while Hoffman is Hoffman, peppering little dots of magic throughout the film.
Ultimately, Mockingjay only begins to gel in the final act once the story begins pick up some momentum and moves toward Part 2. To its credit, Part 1 does an exceptional job of teasing the next installment, leaving us with a final image almost powerful enough to tide us over until next November. Still, in a world where we can watch an entire television season of the course of the weekend, splitting the final showdown into two films seems at odds with our current attention spans, especially with these Hunger Games films that dissolve in our memories the second we leave the theater. I still can’t wait for the final film, but if I had my druthers, I’d have probably watched Mockingjay — Part 1 on the small screen in my living room the night before Part 2 is released.