By Stephen Mayne, @finalreel
In a world awash with adaptations of young adult dystopian fiction, The Hunger Games series still towers above its brethren. The first two outings were fresh and thrilling experiences, full of colour, action and the newly minted star power of Jennifer Lawrence. She remains the chief attraction, just as her character Katniss Everdeen seems to hold the fate of Panem in her palm, but the youthful charm is wearing off. Hampered by the commercially astute and artistically questionable decision to split the finale in two, Mockingjay – Part 1 finds moments of entertainment in an otherwise incomplete whole.
Re-entry back into Panem is a slow one. Katniss, now hiding out with the rebels of District 13, is stuck down a drab bunker of green jumpsuits and looming concrete. She’s the number one weapon the rebels have, and alternative President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are determined to deploy her to full effect. She’s the rallying cry that will unite the oppressed against the tyranny of the Capitol. But Katniss is not for coaching. Reading from a cue card reaps dismal results. A woman of action, she needs to get in the thick of it to tap into the compassionate resolve that made her a symbol for so many.
At least this provides returning director Francis Lawrence with an excuse to remove her from the gloomy bunker. With newcomer Natalie Dormer’s film crew tracking her every step, she visits hospitals, weeps over the sight of massacres and morphs into Rambo to shoot down bombers with her trusty bow. Lawrence (Francis) handles the set pieces effectively, capturing the zip that served the first two films so well. Katniss aside, there’s a tense rescue mission and the spectacular destruction of key landmarks to pass the time.
The problem comes outside the action. With the story stretched so thinly, there’s not enough to entertain between explosions. Key characters are reduced to little more than cameo appearances. Newly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) swings by for a brief pep talk while blissfully materialistic stylist Effie (Elizabeth Banks) is shackled in her jumpsuit strait jacket. Meanwhile, the dashing young men of the franchise amble about in the background with very little opportunity to dash. Finnick (Sam Claflin) barely speaks until the end while Gale (Liam Hemsworth) moons after Katniss like a giant puppy spurned of attention.
Everyone is pushed to one side to make way for a central relationship that badly lets the film down. When she should be getting on with the job at hand, Katniss instead chooses to mope over wet blanket Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), stuck in the Capitol with President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Usually so assured, she becomes drearily flaky, even refusing to deliver a simple message to camera when fears over Peeta’s safety overwhelm her. The previous films were allowed to keep the story small, restrained by the geographical confines of the arena. Now, when it needs to widen out, Mockingjay is painfully restricted by a love story that keeps the focus on an unconvincing romance. That thousands are dying all around seems of little concern.
Thank God for Sutherland as the sneeringly smug Snow. He delights in his opportunity to play the slick, callous leader. There’s something of Alan Rickman circa Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in his mischievous game playing, only without the childish tantrums. He’s also a stark reminder that there are bigger things at stake than the endangered flame of teenage love. A chilling conversation with Katniss elevates the climax while proving that the real fun lies between Sutherland and the impossibly charismatic Lawrence (Jennifer) who manages to rise above her character’s increasingly irritating traits.
Mockingjay – Part 1 isn’t a bad film. It’s just not a complete one. Very much the first part of an overextended finale, the strain starts to show on everyone as they struggle to fill time before the credits. In brief chunks, there’s enough to entertain without ever really impressing. When the story concludes next year, let’s hope a little more happens.
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