If you’ve read the “Hunger Games” trilogy, you likely have very strong feelings about the series’ third installment: either you (like me) thought it was a brilliantly bleak capstone to a memorable series, or you were repulsed by its unrelenting grimness. Given how remarkably well-done the film series has been thus far, I remain optimistic that next year’s finale will win over the naysayers – even if “Mockingjay – Part 1” isn’t quite up to the task by itself.
Following in the wake of “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” and “The Hobbit,” “Mockingjay” has been split into two parts, with the second to release next fall. After being rescued from the wreckage of a second Hunger Games event, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in District 13, ground zero for a brewing rebellion. Meanwhile, her fellow Hunger Games veteran and erstwhile love interest Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) remains a captive of the authoritarian Capitol. While the rebels prepare for battle, Katniss is recruited to make propaganda films for the struggle, skirmishing with Capitol forces wherever possible.
As “Mockingjay – Part 1” unfolds, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that this shouldn’t have been two films. The pacing (especially in the first two-thirds of the movie) is positively languid. Lawrence is a great actress, and undoubtedly the soul of the film series, but three separate “Shocked To See Burned-Out Landscape” reaction shots is a lot to ask of anyone. Such moments end up feeling like filler – a serious sin in a penultimate chapter that should be characterized by escalating tension.
The sole blame for this weakness rests with whoever greenlit the split-movie idea: director Francis Lawrence does an outstanding job with the material he has, but there’s just not enough narrative here to sustain a full two-hour film. It’s naturally problematic to try to piece together a three-act film structure out of a novel’s first half: in order to form a coherent onscreen arc, comparatively inconsequential plot points are magnified beyond their relative importance (the Malfoy Manor sequence at the end of the first “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” film is another example of this). At such points, the music swells and top-dollar special effects cascade across the screen, but something feels off; in the aftermath, the status quo remains largely unchanged.
That said, when “Mockingjay – Part 1” does take flight, it soars. The film’s images of war-scarred landscapes are undeniably compelling, and the intimate human feel of the first two movies remains intact. More stars than Lawrence get their chance to shine in this installment, with Philip Seymour Hoffman delivering an especially magnificent performance as Katniss’ propaganda director. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, previously little more than a token heartthrob, also gets some good character development this time around (vastly improving upon the source material). A “Zero Dark Thirty”-inspired raid sequence serves as the film’s climax – and as truncated as the movie feels as a whole, the scene is remarkably intense. (Also, a word for book fans: the film’s rendition of “The Hanging Tree” is sublime, segueing from a simple folk song into a solemn anthem of war).
For all its lapses into lazy screenwriting, “Mockingjay – Part 1” remains a solidly executed installment. It doesn’t conjure up the same menace and intensity as its predecessors, but there’s still a final chapter to come. And when stacked up against “Divergent” or any other inferior imitators, “Mockingjay – Part 1” looks very good indeed.
The weakest of the three so far, but still a good deal better than any recent YA-lit adaptation out there.
Normalized Score: 3.4