After the outstanding The Hunger Games and then the spectacular The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the expectations were high for Mockingjay, Part 1. Could director Francis Lawrence match the visual excellence, the pace, and intensity of Catching Fire? Would Mockingjay push the saga further and deeper like the first two films did?
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. It just doesn’t hold its own against the other two.
Instead of the stunning visuals and grand vistas of Catching Fire, we get a journey into the mind of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the deep underground bunkers of District 13. To accentuate this, most of the film is shot with soft focuses, up-close looks, and the return of the shaky, hand-held camera looks of the first film. It’s understandable WHY the film was shot this way but you feel cheated from a larger story. The harshness of the oppression and the scope of the rebellion never get full treatment in how the film is shot.
It only takes the first 15 minutes of the film to realize that Mockingjay, Part 1 is going to focus more on drama and dialog. Not a bad idea. The execution of said idea has some missteps.
The political and psychological mind games between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Katniss is supposed to take center stage. A fascinating layer to the film is these games are actually between Snow and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the former Game Master turned rebellion PR guy.
It’s Plutarch that is actually matching wits with Snow with Katniss and rebellion president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) as his chess pieces. Plutarch uses propaganda films and stirring speeches to push the war effort in the other districts. He even employs the help of some old friends – Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). These scenes are brilliant and this is where the film is at its best. There are quite a few laugh out loud moments due to the understated brilliance of Woody Harrelson and his interaction with Katniss.
What hurts the film is what also hurt the book – the subplot of Katniss’s love life. In both the film and book, there is this grand meta-narrative developing. It includes the past of President Snow, this incredible power struggle between him and Katniss, the battle of the wits with Plutarch, the inability of the rebellion to ever out-think or out-move President Snow. There is an outside world beat down by years of oppression and systematic killing craving a leader for their cause and hope for revolution. All of this unfolds with deep, complicated characters and a plot line with plenty of surprises.
It’s a thing of beauty…
that gets completely pushed to the side when the focus returns to Katniss figuring out who she really loves between Peetah (Josh Hutchinson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The director tones this down in comparison to the book but it is still there. It adds a sense of uneasiness to the film – a sense of disjointedness. As good as the film is when it focuses on the politics and the game, it’s awkward and tiresome to continue to return to Katniss and her love triangle that she finds herself in the middle of.
Ultimately Mockingjay, Part 1 does exactly what it was designed to do – set up Mockingjay, Part 2. It does smack of commercialism to divide the final book into two parts. Yes, the Harry Potter franchise did it but there was a lot more content in Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows than Mockingjay. You definitely get the sense that you’ve only seen half the movie.
The good news in all of this? It sets up Part 2 very well and we should be in store for a great conclusion to the series.