I know some people are cynical enough to see Twilight and The Hunger Games and see apples and apples, but as anyone that’s taken the time to read the books that the movies are based on knows, the third Hunger Games chapter, Mockingjay, is where the Suzanne Collins creation separates itself from an comparison to Stephanie Meyer‘s work. The final of Twilight, Breaking Dawn, reads like the Mary Sue wish fulfillment adventure that every hater says it is, with nothing ventured, but everything gained in the end. It’s a fairy tale ending where the monster isn’t slain, he just shrugs and gives up and everything’s cool. Mockingjay, by comparison, will mess you up by the end.
Mockingjay, now split into two chapters because money, is not a sweeping romance, or super-powered adventure. It’s got a head full of very adult themes on war and freedom which belie its young protagonists and their romantic and dramatic complications. But how do you know that Mockingjay – Part 1 is more impacting than your average movie aimed at young adult audience? I watched it in a theater full of teenagers and the whole time they were silent and nary was a cell phone light seen through the two-hour running time. That, my friends, is power.
Mockingjay – Part 1 plays with themes of torture, propaganda, loyalty, power, sacrifice, sexual exploitation, and annihilation. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has survived the Quarter Quell, saved by the hidden but powerful District 13 who want to use her as a kind of mascot for all the downtrodden districts in Panem to rally around, but it’s not until she returns to the wiped out District 12 and sees the charred remains for her friends and neighbors wiped out in the firestorm that she agrees to do it. Katniss does have conditions though, in exchange for her participation as a propaganda tool, she wants President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) to agree to mount a rescue effort for Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who’s being used as a propaganda piece for the Capitol by the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
The idea of turning out heroes into dueling propaganda tools on either side of the war they inadvertently started is a compelling angle for the movie to exploit, and certainly more compelling that exploring the characters through the forced love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The one time the film addresses the potential of romance between Katniss and Gale, the momentum kind of screeches to halt as it feels like something that must be addressed because its in the book. A quick kiss in the kitchen, and the reason it happens, doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans in the midst of an apocalyptic civil war, and not even the considerable talents of Oscar winner Lawrence can do anything with it.
On the other hand it is Lawrence who overcomes a lot of the moments that feature the potentially annoying and whiny aspects of Katniss as they read in the book, and instead she finds the humor or pathos of a given situation, or she at least makes the moment more genuine beyond what could be a teenage temper tantrum. That may also be thanks to the script by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, which pushes hard the idea that these survivors of the Games have post-traumatic stress issues and uses the extra time from the book being split into two movies to better show the audience the full impact of that horror on the psyche of characters like Katniss and Finnick (Sam Clafin). It’s a pitch that Lawrence is more than able to hit, and it makes her decision to help the rebels fight the Capitol easier to buy than she just wants to save the boy she likes.
Some of the best stuff for Katniss, and Lawrence, in the film is the creation of the propaganda films to inspire the rebel districts, which is also the source for a lot of meta commentary about the series itself and how its sold. In one scene, the rebellion leaders sit around to discuss what they like about Katniss after the initial creation of studio-filmed, effects-heavy propos (as they’re called) fail to get the right energy. The finished propos, which feature images of Katniss on the frontline of the rebellion, are cut together like a trailer for the movie, complete with the flaming mockingjay and the four-note musical cue. Clearly, director Francis Lawrence was having some fun there.
Director Lawrence is the other MVP of the film, juggling well the various storylines and nearly two dozen characters. He also does well showing the full scale and consequence of the war, from the micro personal toll to the macro destructive result. One really effective scene begins with Katniss by a river in District 12 singing the title song from the 1959 Delmer Daves movie The Hanging Tree, and dissolves to a scene from another district where workers sing the song while destroying the hydro-electric dam that powers the Capitol. Jennifer Lawrence’s voice blends and disappears into the chorus as James Newton Howard’s score swells as the rebels succeed, at great cost, with their mission. It’s another example of how the movie builds on and compliments the book since the original text is Katniss’ first person narration, which limits the scale in how the book can show the war.
Having said that though, Mockingjay is more interested in the chess moves in the war room than it is on the battlefield, and when you have a cast this good, you want to use them as actors more than you want to use them as props shooting down CG hovercraft. The script finds a good way to expand the role of Elizabeth Banks‘ Effie Tricket and lets her add some blessed comic relief to the proceedings, and Woody Harrelson proves his worth in every scene as Katniss’ Games mentor Haymitch. The rare treat in the piece though is seeing Moore as Coin plot strategy with Plutarch played again by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Moore and Hoffman came up at the same time, and have appeared in three films together including The Big Lebowski and Boogie Nights, so seeing them on screen plot and scheme together gives Mockingjay added poignancy outside the plot. Mockingjay – Part 2 will feature Hoffman in his final performance.
In the spirit that anyone reading this review is probably someone who’s either a Hunger Games fan or someone just wondering if it might be an entertaining couple of hours at the movie this weekend, I’ll say that yes, it is most entertaining. The various thematic threads seeded throughout the previous two chapters are put out front, and free of the structure of the Games themselves, the movie can deal with its characters and their inner drives without the plotting and score keeping. And unlike other bifurcated final chapters, I think Mockingjay – Part 1 ends at a natural conclusion that adequately says one story is finished while another story still beckons. Granted those are two halves of the same story, but if you’re a passive fan of The Hunger Games you don’t leave the theater desperate for part 2.
To the haters, what can I say? You think what you think and that’s fine, but I remember going to review the second Twilight movie, New Moon, in an advanced screening full of supposed Twi-hards laughing hard in scenes where they were supposed to swoon. It was an amazing thing when I looked around during a key scene in Mockingjay’s climax and realized I was in a movie theater full of teenagers and maybe two of them had their phones out. Again, that’s power. And that may have something to do with The Hunger Games be a cut above you’re average YA novel adaptation.