Adaptation Adventure

A Film Review in Revolt: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

November 21, 2014Ben Mk


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The beginning of the end...

Together we stand, divided we fall. It's a recurring sentiment that has echoed throughout The Hunger Games film series, from its debut entry in 2012 to 2013's Catching Fire. But nowhere does it resonate with more fervor than in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, the penultimate installment in the mega-hit young adult franchise, which sees Jennifer Lawrence once again reprising her role as bow-wielding protagonist Katniss Everdeen. Only this time, it's no longer a game. And it's not just her life at stake, but the life of every single person in Panem.

   

It's been a year since we last saw Katniss literally blow the roof off the Quarter Quell, effectively stopping the annual tradition known as the Hunger Games dead in its tracks. Unbeknownst to her, however, her courageous act of self-sacrifice and defiance has done more than just send a message to the Capitol. It has sown the seeds of rebellion in the hearts and minds of the nation's citizens, leaving President Snow (Donald Sutherland) more eager than ever to quash his people's surging spirits.

Mockingjay - Part 1 picks up immediately after Catching Fire's cliffhanger ending, which saw Katniss being rescued from the crumbling artifice that once was the arena for the 75th Hunger Games by her mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and former Capitol Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final role), only to learn that her home, District 12, has been wiped off the map, and that her fellow victors, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Johanna (Jena Malone) and Annie (Stef Dawson), have been taken captive at the Capitol.

She awakens in a place thought to have been reduced to rubble during the Dark Days — District 13 — where we find the underground base of operations for a band of rebels eyeing to overthrow Snow's totalitarian regime. And Katniss is here because she's been pegged to play a key role in their plans for launching a full-fledged rebellion against the Capitol.

Its leader is the steely-eyed and unflappable President Coin (Julianne Moore), who, working closely with Plutarch, has concocted a plan to leverage Katniss' popularity with the everyday folk of Panem in order to rally the districts. And it has to do with making her the figurehead of the rebellion — their Mockingjay. More to the point, they want her to be the star of a series of propaganda videos aimed at getting the rebels' message of uprising to every fed-up citizen.

Cue a hilarious scene which has Plutarch attempting to coach Katniss at acting convincingly against a green screen backdrop, in which you can practically picture director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) doing the same on-set. Actually, it's one of the highlights of the movie — a fleeting moment of humor in an otherwise grim and grey dystopian portrait.

But before we can get to that point, we have to contend with scenes that show a still-traumatized Katniss trying to find the strength to come to terms with her new reality — namely, the annihilation of District 12 and Peeta's captivity. She was shell-shocked in the early-goings of Catching Fire too, so to see her go through a similar emotional and psychological journey again here feels a bit like déjà vu. However, this time she isn't alone. We also witness Haymitch learning to cope with being sober for days on end (apparently a first for him). And let's not forget Elizabeth Banks as Effie — another high point — who's been deprived of her haut couture wardrobe, leaving her to rely on her sharp-tongued wit.

Of course, Katniss eventually concedes to being the rebellion's Mockingjay, but not without a few conditions of her own, demanding that Coin rescue Peeta, Johanna and Annie from the Capitol's clutches in return. Once that deal is made, the film begins to gain some momentum. We're introduced to new characters — a guerrilla camera crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) — who follows Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) into the war-ravaged neighboring districts, filming her every move for broadcast later. And there are a handful of brief action sequences, one involving Katniss herself, and a few others that illustrate the rebellion spreading like wildfire through Panem.

Those action beats, however, are few and far between. Beyond that, the film feels oddly inert, as it's all but entirely devoted to laying the groundwork for the next installment. There's a glimpse or two of life in the Capitol, as Snow prepares to crack down on the rebels. But by and large we're relegated to watching actors mull about subterranean sets, biding their time until the revolution can begin in earnest. It's a far cry from the open arena combat of the previous movies, which may not come as a shock to fans of Suzanne Collins' novels, but for those filmgoers expecting a more action-packed outing, it may try their patience.

Still, if you've stuck with Katniss and company all the way up until this point, you'd have to be crazy to abandon ship now. Ultimately, you just have to trust that Mockingjay - Part 1 will play much more satisfyingly in a double feature with next year's Mockingjay - Part 2. In the meantime, think of it as more or less a pit stop on the way to the series' final destination. After all, though you may be itching to get back on the road again, you've got to gas up for the final leg of the journey.

The Bottom Line Gone is the previous installments' tried-and-true formula that had young warriors battling both intense media scrutiny and each other for glory, as well as the right to live. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 replaces it with scenes that weigh more heavily on emotion, exposition and plotting, shifting gears dramatically now that the games are done and war is upon the nation of Panem. It's not that the elements that made the first two films such successes aren't still present, they — like Katniss herself — are just more subdued this time around. Consider it the calm before the storm. And rest assured, the revolution is coming — it's just not here yet.  Ben Mk








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