With each instalment, The Hunger Games franchise moves further away from the flimsy young adult fare it’s so often lumped in with and closer to something more mature and more intelligent than most big-budget franchises, young adult or otherwise. Unfortunately, the commerce-driven decision to split the series’ third book into two films, ala Harry Potter and Twilight, has left The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 feeling like a film that’s itching to get going but has to wait for its chance.
The film picks up after the events of Catching Fire, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) holed up in District 13 with a rebel faction intent on bringing down the all-powerful Capitol and its leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who forces participants from poorer districts to fight to the death in the televised Hunger Games year after year. As a former winner who managed to beat Snow’s system not once, but twice, Katniss has become a symbol of the resistance for the poorer districts and the rebels, lead by President Coin (Julianne Moore) and PR guru Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), plan to use her as their primary piece of propaganda.
Meanwhile, the Capitol has a propaganda star of their own: Katniss’ public boyfriend and fellow Hunger Games survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is being used in live broadcasts to try and quell the rebel uprising by getting at Katniss directly.
For a big budget franchise nearing its conclusion, Mockingjay Part 1 is a strangely slow and talky affair. With no actual Hunger Games taking place, there is no big action set piece and what does happen takes place off screen. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as what is set up here is fantastic and the parallels to the real world are easily drawn. The rich oppressing the poor, the shameless propaganda, the PTSD that Katniss suffers from after her harrowing experiences and the horrific brainwashing that is revealed late in the film. It’s all potent, thoughtful stuff that feels particularly ambitious and at times highly disturbing with the softened edges of the series’ first instalment well and truly sharpened again.
What frustrates however is that none of this really leads anywhere, at least not in this film. No doubt Mockingjay Part 2 will be a barn-storming finale but this film spends far too much time just treading water, struggling to fill its bloated run time with compelling material. The first time Katniss visits her home of District 12 and sees it has been obliterated by Snow’s forces, with homes destroyed and bodies strewn across the landscape, it’s a powerful moment. But when essentially the same scene is repeated later on, it’s less affecting. Similarly, a nothing subplot involving a cat feels like something that would have been excised had the story been told in one instalment.
However much the narrative suffers from the split, the acting remains unaffected with the cast growing into their roles and delivering the best performances of the series. Jennifer Lawrence has always been impressive as Katniss but now with two films’ worth of baggage to dig into, Lawrence’s haunted, emotionally fragile performance is astounding. There’s a bigger role for the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman here too, in his final performance, and he is as good as you might expect, while series veteran Elizabeth Banks continues to find new shades to her fashionista Effie Trinket and Julianne Moore is a welcome addition as the fierce rebel leader.
Between the cast and the rich themes on display, there is much to recommend Mockingjay Part 1 but the material is too thinly stretched to provide a fully satisfying experience. In splitting the final story – which makes a ton of sense financially, if not creatively – the studio has essentially created a stop-gap film – albeit a sombre, mature and intelligent one – that dilutes the power of the final instalment. It brilliantly sets the scene for Mockingjay Part 2 but surely doesn’t achieve anything that couldn’t have been done within the first half hour of that film.