Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first two Hunger Games movies. Please only read on if you have seen them beforehand.
The all-conquering, now billion dollar Hunger Games franchise continues in impressive fashion with part 1 of its conclusion. We pick up pretty much directly in the aftermath of what happened at the end of Catching Fire when, having been forced back into competing in the fateful tournament of the title as part of the 75th year “Quarter Quell,” Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) shot an arrow up into the sky and brought down the barrier and, thus, the whole twisted system.
Having been rescued by those rebelling against the government in The Captiol, Katniss wakes up in the hitherto believed to be exterminated District 13. With the government, led by the power hungry President Snow (Donald Sutherland), having destroyed a lot of the other 12 districts, Katniss is tasked with becoming the icon of the rebel cause, known as the “Mockingjay,” all the while working to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) whom she believes is being held captive.
The great thing about this franchise, and what Mockingjay – Part 1 continues rather brilliantly, is how it manages to tell an over-arching story, always moving things forward to make for a satisfactory long-form narrative experience for the audience, while at the same time allowing each film to stand on its own two feet as individual pieces of entertainment. Similar young adult fantasy fare as of late like Divergent and The Maze Runner, as enjoyable as they may have been on their own, ended up feeling like they were just saying, “Wait until you see the next one!” Not so with this franchise and thankfully Mockingjay – Part 1 stands that ground but also does a great job of making you want to see what comes next, especially since it’s all in anticipation of the franchise’s dénouement.
It’s a much less action-lacked film this time around, understandable considering the titular games are, quite literally, out of the picture. It’s all about repercussions and consequences, good and bad, for drastic actions taken before and the heavy guilt that may lay heavy on those who took them. Ironically, even though a slight issue with the first film was that it took too long to get to the actual games, and once it did it felt decisively safe and lacking in impact (something Catching Fire more than made up for), this one actually functions better without them. It’s a more thoughtful and melancholic film but with a tremendous sense of anticipation of what’s to come. Occasionally it can feel like they’re stretching the material a bit – even fans will tell you the third book is the weakest and least deserving of being splitting into two upon adaptation – as there are a few of the more talky scenes that easily could have been left on the cutting room floor. But it’s never enough to derail the film that thoroughly knows its audience and plays to it though never forgetting that it also needs to appeal those less familiar.
Lawrence is once against terrific as the conflicted, understandably emotional Katniss as she struggles between becoming the face of an entire revolution – Lawrence is brilliant at convincing us of both her determination to take a stand and her fear of doing exactly that – and dealing with more personal problems like her guilt over what happened to Peeta. It’s a heroine that, unlike, say, Bella in the Twilight movies, continues to be a strong, complicated and believably human heroine for young girls everywhere and Lawrence pitches her portrayal of her just right.
She is ably supported by a heavyweight supporting cast, including the late-great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the wonderfully named Plutarch Heavensbee; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett like you’ve never seen her before (downtrodden, plain and out-of-costume); Jeffrey Wright as the amiable weapons-maker Beetee; and new addition Julianne Moore, compelling as the light President Alma Coin of the resistance to Sutherland’s dark President Snow of the Capitol. Some of the younger cast get thrown more into the spotlight this time around, including rising star Sam Claflin as fellow Games winner Finnick and Liam Hemsworth as friend Gale.
The biggest surprise in the cast, however, is Hutcherson as Peeta. His very important subplot, which ultimately drives most of Katniss’ actions and thus the plot, takes things in a refreshingly dark and frankly quite disturbing direction which sets things up intriguingly for what’s to come and with it Hutcherson gets to show he’s more than just a pretty face and certainly more than just a generic love interest for the hero. The movie does a nice job of giving its characters enough to do so that they don’t feel wasted and introduces new characters in a way that makes them feel like they’ve been there the whole time.
Although it’s ultimately one half of a much bigger movie, Mockingjay – Part 1 provides gripping, thrilling and compelling entertainment in its own right. It continues to invest us richly and deeply into the increasingly dangerous world that it presents – some of its depictions of the devastation are surprisingly intense for its 12A age rating – maintaining its social consciousness and social satire about power, corruption and propaganda but pleasingly lacking in the heavy-handedness often associated with films that make that sort of attempt. We’ll obviously have to wait and see if Part 2 lives up to the hype but, if Part 1 is anything to go by, it’s going to be one hell of a finale.
This review was previously published on Scotcampus.