MOVIE REVIEW: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: FRANCIS LAWRENCE / SCREENPLAY: DANNY STRONG, PETER CRAIG / STARRING: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, JOSH HUTCHERSON, LIAM HEMSWORTH, WOODY HARRELSON / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 20TH
Taking the young out of Young Adult adaptations in magnificent style, Mockingjay Part 1 continues the Hunger Games franchise’s descent into darkness. It’s a relentlessly bleak film; its heroine frazzled, its male lead brainwashed, the resistance appearing futile in the face of a ruthless dictator and even heartthrob Finnick has become a broken shell of who he once was.
Mockingjay drops the audience straight into the depressing hole beneath the Earth that is home to the resistance: District 13. With Katniss still haunted by her two rounds in the arena and furious about losing Peeta, she’s in no mood for joining the revolution. Plutarch Heavensbee and District 13’s President Coin want to use Katniss as a propaganda tool to fuel the flames of revolt that Katniss has kindled in the Districts. Meanwhile, Peeta is being held in the Capitol by President Snow who’s determined to crush the uprising before his comfy new world order crumbles.
Doing a Twilight and splitting the final book in the trilogy into two films at first seemed like a half-arsed Hobbit-style cash grab. However, the decision to split Mockingjay into Parts 1 and 2 now feels perfectly justified with returning director Francis Lawrence packing the film’s running time with critical scenes and still potentially saving the best for last. Mockingjay Part 1 is very much about setting the scene for the war to come, establishing District 13 as a completely new setting and raising the stakes for the ordinary people of the districts as they begin to really revolt against their oppressors.
Even though the Hunger Games franchise has always been built on a disturbingly adult idea from the start, this film really treats its teen target market as a lot more patient, thoughtful and toughened than any Transformers film would ever dare to. There are few set pieces, little spectacle and not a lot of time fawning over the Twihard-baiting love triangle. Relationships may be a key part of the film, but Katniss has little time for mooning over boys and far less desire for romance. Peeta’s trapped in the Capitol, meaning she is concerned over his safety and just as poor Liam Hemsworth starts getting some decent screen time, Gale is growing increasingly cold as the war starts to take its toll.
But Mockingjay Part 1 is all about Katniss. She’s waking from nightmares screaming and desperate to hide away from what the rebels want her to become. President Coin and Plutarch want her as a propaganda tool; to be manipulated and wheeled out on videos dished out to the Districts on command. Jennifer Lawrence is exceptional as ever, handling both Katniss’ vulnerability and fierceness with ease. Her stirring speech at the site of a recently blown to bits hospital will boil the blood as much as it tugs the heartstrings. Although it’s tempting to forget Katniss’ catnip Gale and Peeta, Josh Hutcherson should also be commended for his performance as Peeta becomes increasingly interesting as the film goes on.
There are problems with Mockingjay though and most of these are transferred across from Suzanne Collins’ weakest book in the series. Even with the expansion allowed by splitting the book into two films, there’s still not enough of the other districts and their burgeoning revolts. Minus a quick detour into District 5 for a daring bombing mission and an even quicker dash up the trees of District 7, there is little sense of the revolution catching fire as everyone keeps saying it is. District 13 lacks any new strong characters and feels like a thousand other hastily written dystopian underground societies (but at least it is mercifully free of any Matrix Zion-style sloppy raves). Its bland uniforms, grey walls and gloomy lighting feel a million miles from the Capitol’s excesses as they should, but still feel a little underdeveloped. Worst of all, the rescue mission that caps this penultimate movie in the franchise is still oddly unconvincing and fails to raise the pulse, particularly as it keeps Katniss out of the action.
On the other hand, what works about Mockingjay is the ever-present themes that Collins originally jammed into her novel. The sense of disillusionment with war and the way calculating leaders fight and win support for their causes is palpable. This is a film completely unafraid to shy away from the horror of conflict, ensuring anyone watching gets a strong sense of what war really costs. Mockingjay Part 1 hurls executions, massacres, mass graves, the firebombed skulls and bones of District 12’s citizens and a hospital full of wounded, bleeding District 7 inhabitants at the screen. The players in this much bigger game taunt each other from giant screens in frequent videos with Snow delivering threats, and shoving the captured Peeta right under Katniss’ nose. District 13 hurl back their own propaganda videos featuring the glorious vision of the defiant Mockingjay (thanks to Beetee’s hacking skills) but the people of the districts get lost somewhere in the middle.
Mockingjay Part 1 isn’t perfect then but it’s still a deeply emotive blockbuster with some decent characters you can really care for. More than simply filler, this film is setting the stage for the huge war to come. Aided immeasurably by Lawrence’s powerful performance, Katniss is still the current queen of science fiction cinema and if Mockingjay is anything to go by, this franchise is building to an explosive and no doubt incredibly emotional conclusion.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10