It feels vulgar and wrong to just lay out up-and-down judgments of movies like this, but I guess in a world where people quote Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores to each other like they’re scientific facts, it’s not so bad by comparison. Let me tell you where I stand on the Hunger Games movies so far. The first one, The Hunger Games, was a pretty okay movie with some obvious flaws that wasn’t as good as the book it was adapted from. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen held the film together and made it better than the sum of its parts. The second one, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, was not only better than both the book it’s based on and the first film in the series, it was an actively good sci-fi movie. And now we’re on the third one—or rather, I guess, the first half of the third one—and how does The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 stack up?
Well, it’s definitely the first half of a movie. And it’s a pretty uneven film. But I’d say that even though it’s not nearly as satisfying a moviegoing experience as Catching Fire, it’s better than the first half of the book it’s based on—Mockingjay is by far the weakest volume in Suzanne Collins’s young-adult trilogy—and its biggest weaknesses may simply be a symptom of the fact that it’s got to delay all its gratification for next year’s concluding installment. But its strengths make it more than worth your time.
If you haven’t seen the Hunger Games movies, you’ll be totally lost here. Mockingjay doesn’t even try to catch you up on the story so far, and that’s perfectly okay. Why would you try to start watching a four-part series with the third part? Plus, it all sounds so tawdry and lame when it’s plugged into a couple minutes of recap: First, Katniss Everdeen represents her district in a dystopian future in which teenagers battle to the death for fame and fortune. Then she becomes a figurehead for revolution, and after a second battle to the death with a fresh batch of teenagers, Everdeen is saved by the militaristic forces of District 13 even as her home district is firebombed to nothingness.
Even without that kind of a retrospective tacked on to the front of Mockingjay, the viewer’s reentry into the world of the Hunger Games is a rough one. It puts Lawrence at a table with two of the best American film actors of the 21st century: Philip Seymour Hoffman (as revolutionary genius Plutarch Heavensbee) and Julianne Moore (as President Alma Coin). You expect to see fireworks. Instead, for the next few minutes you crawl into a fetid info dump explaining where the movie will be heading. Heavensbee and Coin need Everdeen (Jesus, those names) to be the figurehead for the uprising against the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland, bringing some class to the lost art of mustache twirling), but she’s got a bad case of PTSD, and she’s upset that her ally in the Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, giving his best performance yet), is in the hands of President Snow.
Imagine if Che Guevara refused to appear on all those T-shirts because he isn’t sure the revolution is worth the human cost, and you’re starting to get the idea.
At one point in that over-explanatory first scene, Hoffman even delivers the line “There’s explaining and there’s showing” with a puckish, breaking-the-fourth-wall smirk. (Hoffman had fun in this, his final role, which mostly required him to be in awe of Lawrence’s Everdeen.) Moore doesn’t have as much luck with the line “When you fired your arrow at the force field, you electrified a nation,” but even Brando in his prime would just mumble through the lameness and pray that particular piece of dialogue would wind up on the cutting-room floor.
Once Mockingjay finally gets rolling, things get pleasantly weird. The film launches some cute little meta-digs into the soullessness of CGI acting, and many of the flamboyant performances of the first two movies get flipped on their heads this time around. Now that the focus of the series has moved from the opulent and fashionable Capital to a secret insurgent’s base, the characters have to make do with rags and unglamorous subterranean lighting. Those scenes, mostly starring Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, are a pleasure to watch. And so are the scenes where Everdeen comes face-to-face with the ugly cost of war; Mockingjay does a better job of conveying the war-is-hell message than this year’s Oscar-bait World War II movie Fury.
It’s been a few years since I read Mockingjay, but my recollection of the book is that Everdeen spends a lot of time being knocked unconscious, suffering from trauma, and watching things happen. And it’s true that Everdeen doesn’t get as many heroic moments in Mockingjay as she did in the other two movies. But it’s fascinating to watch her become a propaganda tool, to pretend to be the hero for the purposes of morale-boosting videos. After a rash of cinematic series in which the main character is destined to become the One True Hero, it’s refreshing to watch a character who isn’t comfortable becoming a symbol for heroic greatness. Everdeen’s helplessness in the face of public perception is not something you see every day in blockbuster cinema.
For the most part, director Francis Lawrence continues the fine work he brought to the series in Catching Fire. He’s good at putting the characters into actual space, so the audience knows where they’re standing and which way they’re facing. (It’s sad that this is an underrated talent, but here we are.) There’s not as much action in this film, but only one sequence (an extraction sequence that seems to owe its existence to Zero Dark Thirty) isn’t as tense as it should be. For every moment in which the pacing on Mockingjay feels just a bit off, there are two or three moments that work with an effortless grace, including the very enticing cliffhanger. Director Lawrence has the opportunity here to lead actor Lawrence and the rest of the cast into a serious blowout of a final Hunger Games film. There’s plenty of evidence in the first half of Mockingjay to indicate that he might just wind up making it work.