Let’s go ahead and start things off by addressing the elephant in the room: the dreaded Part 1 descriptor that follows Mockingjay. It’s a darn shame that Hollywood has started this trend of splitting up movies. Sometimes, it makes sense. Most of the time, though, it’s done in the name of blatant cash-grabbing. I entered Mockingjay–Part 1 fully expecting an underwhelming experience. Like the entries preceding it, I was sure that this third Hunger Games film would have decent moments, only to end with nary a climax in sight. I knew that most of it would be build-up, and then–credits.
Was I wrong? Not entirely. As expected, the first part of Mockingjay is a slow burn. There’s a lot of talking, a bit of doing here and there, and a whole lot of waiting. And when things do start getting really good, the movie stops. See you next year for part 2, Hunger Gamers.
But here’s the kicker–this latest installment isn’t stylistically different from its predecessors, at least not in a mechanical sense. Mockingjay–Part 1 picks things up immediately after the events of Catching Fire, which in turn picked things up immediately after the events of the first Hunger Games film. Calling them “sequels” probably isn’t even the best way to describe these movies. They’re more like chapters, and exist next to one another in a fashion that serialized television fans have become accustomed to in recent years.
In other words, it’s impossible to fully understand Mockingjay–Part 1 without context. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong spend absolutely no time explaining anything to newcomers–if you haven’t seen any of the Hunger Games films, then you’re SOL. This simple fact breaks the isolationist rule of sequels, but again, Mockingjay–Part 1 isn’t the first entry to do this. At least they’re consistent, right?
If Mockingjay doesn’t spend any time reminding us why we should care through exposition, it makes up for it by actually showing us. This is a feat in of itself, because unlike the first Hunger Games film and Catching Fire, Mockingjay isn’t set in an arena. There’s actually very little combat action, a significant first for this franchise. Instead of brutal violence and survival suspense, Mockingjay spends most of its time as a study in media effects. Sure, it sounds boring, but watching Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) sway the hearts and minds of an impending revolution via propaganda is actually incredibly compelling. The Hunger Games have always played on the notion of mass communication, and Mockingjay takes it up a notch by giving viewers a look into the inner workings of an underground uprising campaign. It’s almost like 1984 in reverse.
The big question here is whether or not it was worth it. The source novel itself is only 390 pages long–hardly enough to warrant a two-entry film. Is there honestly enough here to fill a two hour running time? Again, I was fully expecting the answer to be a unanimous “no,” but that isn’t necessarily the case. There’s undoubtedly a lot of filler scattered throughout Mockingjay–Part 1, but most of it is pretty good, like the time-lapsed video interaction between Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Some of it, like the scenes of a destroyed District 12, are harrowingly great. And everything involving President Snow (a criminally underused Donald Sutherland) is downright inspired.
That isn’t to suggest that Mockingjay–Part 1 doesn’t have any problems, because it truly does. The strange, vacant love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) feels tacked on, and it’s completely unnecessary. This is heavy material–there’s simply no room for unrequited crybaby love. Gale’s whining may have been tolerable if his character was developed well from the get-go, but he wasn’t. He is extraneous, and his emotional nonsense is as well.
And no matter how compelling this stuff is, the filmmakers are still only giving us half of a story to work with. It’s a good half, but only half nonetheless. There’s no climax, and therefore no big payoff.
But that’s obvious–we all knew that Mockingjay–Part 1 was going to live up to its fragmented naming convention. Either way, this is a difficult movie to assess. I’m giving Mockingjay–Part 1 three stars because it’s an entertaining film, even during the slower bits (of which there are many). It does a lot of things well, and even gives us a little character development by way of a vulnerable Katniss. And the performances are predictably top-notch, something that gives this film franchise an edge over competing YA-based sci-fi schlock.
Still, none of this would work without context. I simply cannot recommend Mockingjay–Part 1 to anyone unfamiliar with the territory. It just wouldn’t make sense. But as the “next” installment of a large story, it really is quite good. I suspect that when we finally get Mockingjay–Part 2 and the story is complete, it will totally be worth the wait.