The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
Dir: Francis Lawrence
Mockingjay Part 1 continues to introduce subversive themes and ideas in the strangest and most politically-charged modern blockbuster series outside of The Planet of The Apes. The dystopic setting of Panem is opened up to reveal the ramifications of the last two Hunger Games and its effects on the participants, as the seeds of rebellion take root and an uprising is fomented. Mockingjay Part 1 feels like exactly that – a piece of a whole, and as such is not as thrilling or immediately satisfying as its predecessors. Nevertheless, it dutifully lays the groundwork for what should be an eventful finale and avoids major missteps while continuing to redefine what kind of content can be snuck into a movie of this scale.
The last Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, ended abruptly when series lead Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and fellow competitors Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) were rescued from the deadly child-killing competition/Quarter Quell by some other people with nonsense names* (Plutarch Heavensbee & Haymitch Abernathy, played by the comparatively normally named Philip Seymour Hoffman & Woody Harrelson). Reunited with her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss was hit with the truth bomb that her home District 12 was utterly destroyed and they were en route to meet the leader of the resistance in the mysterious District 13.
For a series that began with a ritualistic fight to the death amongst kids, it’s hard to believe that The Hunger Games could possibly escalate from there. But credit the source material and the way it’s been adapted, as this is a true-blue exploration of oppression and revolution, and the dire means that both sides will go to wrest power from one another. Whereas the first Hunger Games did some heavy world building and Catching Fire got a chance to refine and perfect the formula in what’s probably the best entry yet, Mockingjay Part 1 blazes its own trail as the world of Panem is opened up (we see more scenes of the rebellions in other districts) and the scale of the conflict is increased. What’s odd is that it ends up feeling like a smaller film than the first two in some ways, more confined and cramped.
Perhaps that’s by design, as Katniss herself is basically trapped in the confines of the subterranean District 13 when we catch up with her. At first it seems as though Mockingjay Part 1 may pick up directly after the previous film, but we come to learn that months have passed as the rebellion against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol has gained support but at great costs. Katniss clearly has PTSD from her experiences in The Hunger Games, yet leader of the resistance President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) is still being urged to use her as the figurehead of their movement – what they call the symbolic ‘Mockingjay’. It’s neat the way the film explores the ideas of symbols as power, as Snow bans all Mockingjay iconography and uses former friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as a propaganda tool during his widely broadcast remarks.
The resistance responds with propaganda of their own, as Katniss visits battlefields with a film crew in tow, and the character Cressida (Natalie Dormer) elicits emotional speeches from Katniss by essentially manipulating her. The star of the film becomes, for a time, a tool to be used by others for their own means. While those purposes are mostly in line with her own, it’s odd to see such a strong character lose some of her agency in this way. But with the future at stake and constantly shifting powers, it becomes clear that the strength of words and communication is a main theme here, along with the idea of insidious corruption and deep-rooted dysfunction of the military-industrial complex. Communication is portrayed in myriad ways: Plutarch urges the stiff President Coin to loosen up when rallying the troops, Katniss is given a present of striking armour to project strength, the film even culminates in rival addresses being given, one from the ruling dictator and another from the upstart firebrands.
Without giving anything away, Mockingjay Part 1 ends on an odd note as the filmmakers almost seem to take pleasure in subverting expectations. Just as an action sequence appears to be getting underway we cut away to a different group. Some secrets are revealed and the plot’s moved forward, but it certainly feels like half a story and leaves you wanting more. It’s appropriate for a film that places a lot of stock in what people say and how they say it, but for an action adventure franchise that contained many thrilling set pieces in prior installments it’s a little disappointing. Thankfully there’s one more coming but the wait will be interminable.
So the elements are all there, from Jennifer Lawrence’s fierce portrayal of Katniss Everdeen to the strong supporting cast that the series now boasts. Francis Lawrence directs with a steady hand and the stakes are raised nicely for the final installment. It doesn’t really work as a standalone film and you’d be totally lost if you hadn’t seen the previous ones, but Mockingjay Part 1 continues the series’ tradition of sneaking truly insurgent ideas into popular teen flicks. Look beyond the franchise’s deceiving roots as young adult novels and you’ll find there’s plenty of meaning layered in – let’s just hope they stick the landing in 2015 with Part 2.
*(Spell check hates all Hunger Games characters)
[Post Script: For further evidence of The Hunger Games’ impact look no further than Thai protesters being detained for using the Hunger Games’ three-finger solute or Ferguson protesters painting the Mockingjay phase “If we burn, you burn with us” on a church wall.]