Director Francis Lawrence has a solid filmography under his belt and this proved to be problematic because you cannot help but compare The Hunger Games franchise to other standalone science fiction & fantasy titles. Purveyors of this director's other ambitious works may leave the cinema disappointed. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One is not a bad film but it isn't spectacular either. Do not give into the hype.
If you have not seen The Hunger Games (2012) or its sequel Catching Fire (2013) then what are you doing reading this spoilerific review? Mockingjay Part One follows directly after the events of the 75th Hunger Games Quarter Quell in the futuristic state of Panem. The elite that rule from the Capitol run an annual death pageant where people are plucked from each district to fight in a battle royale—a brutal and vicarious show to remind the masses that subservience to President Snow's (Donald Sutherland) regime is good and defiance is bad.
Remember how the last film ended quite abruptly? Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) let an arrow coiled with wire fly at the arena force field just as lightning struck. Boom. Electronics fried, ceiling collapsing, the surviving participants scramble out of the jungle and are either apprehended by the Capitol or are saved by the rebels.
Mockingjay Part One emphasises the post-traumatic stress syndrome that Katniss now lives with. Phantoms from her past fuel her nightmares and amplify her anxieties. This, unfortunately, seems to be hit and miss in terms of consistency though—there are moments where you expect Katniss to crack and then there are times, i.e. most of the film, where our heroine from District 12 steps up and kicks butt. Sharing Katniss's fragile mental state was intriguing and fleshed out her flaws however her sheer determination to put others before herself in stressful situations seemed to stretch plausibility a tad. Maybe I just enjoyed delving into the intimacies of a fractured head space; it will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the finale.
The scenes where Katniss and sort-of love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunt in the wild and share quiet time seemed like wasted opportunities. The pace slowed to a crawl and interpersonal relationships plateaued. And who lets the face of the rebellion wander about topside when the Capitol is carpet bombing cities on a whim?
Early on we realise someone important is missing: where is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) AKA the other love interest?
New cast members do little to spruce things up which is sadly another missed opportunity to characterise. A rebel camera crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer—Game of Thrones) follow Katniss on suicide missions to counter the Capitol's propaganda with stories of truth and courage. This is a true departure from the franchise's formula, which is refreshing. Instead of another frag frenzy this flick is all about political intrigue. Guerrilla warfare too.
Cressida parrots orders to Katniss: Go here, say this, do that. For such a valuable asset to the rebel cause, Katniss sure likes to live dangerously. And nobody, including Cressida, seems to do much to properly protect their precious Mockingjay.
Other fan favourites such as the drunkard veteran Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) appear in the rebel-occupied District 13, which is a bunker in the ground full of people lacking vitamin D. They have their own President too (Julianne Moore). All the girls in the cinema cheered when Effie (Elizabeth Banks) graced the big screen with her posh personality—a defector of the Capitol with a flair for fashion. A subtle nod to a deceased character sees the rebels develop appropriate attire for their personification of hope (Katniss).
It is also important to honour the memory of Philip Hoffman who played the former Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee. Arguably one of the best characters in the last film, Plutarch brought humour, intelligence and warmth to the table.
Like all franchises with lots of things happening, an ensemble cast is forming. There are so many secondary characters in Mockingjay Part One that you can be forgiven for not caring about the whole gang. As a standalone story, the over saturation of characters does not work.
Meanwhile, when push comes to shove, regular folk from the other districts begin to resist. An intense highlight of Mockingjay Part One: Civilians charge a security team and sabotage the Capitol's hydroelectric dam (such a brilliant demonstration to widen the scope of the narrative).
The lights go out and our rebel friends attempt a daring covert operation that brings the film to a more satisfying close than Catching Fire.
Splitting the final movie of the trilogy into two parts is controversial. Cynics see a bloated cash cow bursting at the udders whereas critics analysing story structure expect the inflated animal to be full of unnecessary padding.
Constantine (2005) is a tight narrative with well-rounded players owning their roles. I am Legend (2007) was a decent execution of the classic novel with an ending that divided the fans. Both of these films inspired all manner of philosophical discussion. Mockingjay Part One follows a path that leaves you primed for the final trail; there's not much to talk about until you reach the destination—time will tell.
Stick around when the credits roll. Treat your ears to the latest Lorde tune, 'Yellow Flicker Beat'.