By splitting up one novel into two movies, it’s inevitable for “Part 1” to be nothing more than a set-up for a major battle that will occur in “Part 2.” In order to make the first part into a justifiable film, the filmmakers must focus their attention on one aspect that can stand on its own two feet, but doesn’t preclude the final film. In The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, the focus was on Bella and Edward’s marriage and dealing with the birth of their daughter, Renesmee; in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, it was all about securing the horcruxes. In both instances, the films were simply gearing up fans for what they really want — the final act. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 doesn’t veer away from this formula, making the film weaker than it could have been had the Mockingjay novel been condensed into one tremendous two and a half to three hour film (as opposed to two two-hour films for no other reason than to make more money).
That doesn’t mean the film fails; quite the opposite. Focusing all of his attention on rescuing Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), director Francis Lawrence (who also gave the franchise a new pulse with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) pulls at all the heartstrings available to him while laying the sturdiest of foundations for what’s to come in the final film, ending it pretty much where I thought they might when I first heard they were going to split the novel into two distinct parts and methodically enticing us back for more.
Lawrence continues to prove that he understands the franchise a lot better than Gary Ross, whose The Hunger Games feels almost juvenile in comparison. From the direction and the acting to the cinematography, special effects and camerawork, everything is so much more mature; the films, in a way, have evolved nicely along with a plot that moves the franchise away from the sadistic games and into a political chess game for Panem’s freedom from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and The Capitol.
The public isn’t simply complaining about the depravity of the Hunger Games anymore; they are rising up against a corrupt government, and in so doing, each side must play their pieces as precisely as possible. Peeta, mugging for The Capitol, is used as a pawn by Snow to illicit contempt in the rebels in an attempt to quash the ability of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) to become the powerful symbol he knows she has the potential to be. On the other side, former games designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) uses Katniss as a pawn in creating propaganda to help remind the rest of Panem why they should unite. Lawrence does a good job balancing this aspect of the film with the rest so as to keep the film from being bogged down in the heaviness of the political machine, which, as many have complained about Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, could cause what’s supposed to be an intense film into something as dry as a desert.
Every emotional beat is right on point, and unlike the first adaptation, wherein the heart of a lot of the relationships were sorely overlooked in favor of shaky action and artsy haughtiness, Lawrence takes his time to nurture those relationships, investing in the characters that drive the narrative forward in a pure, natural way. Every decision Katniss makes is out of love for Peeta (and to a lesser extent, her disdain for District 13’s President, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who decided not to return for Peeta after the destruction of the Quarter Quell). On the other side of the convoluted love triangle is Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), whose decisions are all made to protect Katniss, including his choice to volunteer on a rescue mission that could very well end any possible romantic future he may have had with the love of his life. It’s all very calculated and all very heartbreaking, accentuated by the scene where Katniss goes to visit a makeshift hospital in District 8, only to watch it be destroyed. There is no denying her power to influence the masses to rise up against President Snow as she declares war on The Capitol for the first time. As Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) says, Katniss can’t be forced to be a symbol; it must come naturally.
The relationship that doesn’t get enough attention is that between Katniss and President Snow. There is a very intricate subtext behind the mental games the two play with each other that gets lost a little under the overall influence of Katniss’s desires. Even though Snow isn’t shown much in the novels (due to it being in Katniss’s point of view the entire time), his presence haunts the background, taunting Katniss to fight. As evidenced by the first two films, Sutherland and Lawrence work well off of each other, but when all is said and done, this underlying game they play ends up hidden underneath the glamor of the love story and limited action sequences. When Snow drops hundreds of white roses over the remnants of a battlefield, the message sent to Katniss (which itself feels a bit forced and out of left field) should have been much more powerful than it actually turned out to be because the moments that lead up to this sequence we’re given enough time or weight to make it matter.
Even if the terrific moments of comic relief from Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks (as District 12’s games liaison, Effie Trinket) are too few and far between, the entire returning players help the newcomers (which also includes a film making team that hope to capture every perfectly raw moment from Katniss) fit in quite nicely. And though it may be a “filler” for what is more than likely going to be a killer finale, Mockingjay – Part 1 is well constructed and delivers the goods on almost every level, priming me for the ultimate battle between the Mockingjay and President Snow.
Extra points for finally doing right by Buttercup!
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Horrible Bosses 2 and Penguins of Madagascar. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.