Review: 'Mockingjay Part 1' Gets the Fire Started, Time to Let It Rage
by Alex Billington
November 20, 2014
"Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Wait, wrong movie. I wish we could wait until next year to write about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, because it's a two-part finale and this first one really is just half of a movie. And while I have so much to say, I'm just as anxious to see it conclude properly before I really get into The Hunger Games series in-depth. However, we can't wait a year because Mockingjay - Part 1 is in theaters, and if you want that big screen experience now's the time to make the trip. Unfortunately, Mockingjay seems to be experiencing the same problems as Harry Potter, with the split forcing the story to be drawn out a bit too much taking away from the visceral experience that made the first two films so good.
By now, most people are familiar with The Hunger Games series, however there is still that looming "young adult" Twilight-esque stigma hanging over it even though it doesn't deserve that comparison. This series is not at all the same, and it's actually much better than Twilight and Divergent and those adaptations. The first Hunger Games movie was a solid introduction to a dark, compelling sci-fi world that just so happened to enjoy the sport of pitting kids against kids. Catching Fire upped the ante when director Francis Lawrence took over, and it will likely remain the best in the series by the end, it's a near perfect continuation of this dystopian story that ends on such a heart-racing, inspiring reveal. How could they top that? Can they ever?
From here, after Catching Fire, they make the leap into the epic conclusion that spans two movies because it is essentially an all-out war. As odd as it may seem, the first half of Mockingjay seems the most similar to Matrix Revolutions (and Reloaded) in showing how an underground colony of survivors is preparing to battle against the forces of oppression above ground. There's impressive sci-fi tinges and very dark, violent moments that are used to show just how brutal and deadly and tragic war is, no matter what way you look at it, no matter how they try to cover it up. I have to give some credit to Lionsgate for letting them go this dark, this epic, this violent with a series aimed at "young adults", but perhaps that's also one of the film's faults.
I'm not exactly sure what happened, but one of the differences between Catching Fire and Mockingjay is how much they focus on the violence (in Mockingjay) over the altruism. But maybe that's because this series has progressed to the logical "it's time to go to war!" phase of its story. It was always leading to this point, and I'm glad they aren't holding back, letting it build into the all-out sci-fi war that was hinted at in the very start. However, there are certain firing squad scenes that earned more screentime than actual meaningful moments of discussion and dialogue between Katniss and the people she's supposed to be uniting. It pushes the boundaries of an R-rating and not in a good way, but again, maybe this is just where it needed to end up.
Director Francis Lawrence seems to be going all out this time, with an eye for the overarching story more than the structure of each individual moment in the two finale films. The screenplay, written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong after being adapted by author Suzanne Collins, is not as strong as the script for Catching Fire (written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt). There are some weaker scenes of exposition that fill up some of the dead time between the bigger beats of the war story, and they don't do much except make the film feel dragged out unnecessarily (when it seemingly should be moving faster to match the pace of the first two). Some of the dialogue between Katniss and others she is arguing with is bad, but only distracts briefly.
What I admire the most about The Hunger Games series it the way it sticks to the characters and ideals that were established in the first film. Katniss isn't really a fighter, she just wants to take care of her family, yet she has been turned into the symbol of hope. How does she cope with this? She cares the most about her sister and her mom, but the whole world wants her to reach out and save them, too. The real core of this series, and why it's so popular, has to do with the idea that one person is inspiring an entire population by being staunch, even though they don't really feel like they're capable of being the one (nor do they want the attention from being the person) to change the world. She remains true to herself, and it is indeed inspiring.
While I have read the first book, I haven't read the other books, and honestly I don't know how it's going to end. I'm one of those viewers anxiously awaiting the next twist and turn in Panem, curious about how this one woman will defeat an entire autocracy with a few arrows strapped to her back. Whatever she's planning, whatever goes down, I'm excited to watch. There's that Edwin Starr song with the line "War, huh, yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin'." But it does make for good entertainment. Not only entertainment for us, the moviegoers, who are served heapings of violence for our cinematic pleasure; but also for Panem, a brutally honest critique on how much war seems to be a necessity more than anything that can be avoided.
I want Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) to win. I want her to make it through this alive, but I'm nervous about how they're going to achieve victory. There's something very slimy and off-putting about President Coin, played by Julianne Moore, who runs the rogue District 13. I can't tell if they're setting her up as a replacement for President Snow, only to discover she's worse than what they had before; or if she's actually going to be supportive and righteous by the end. I'm not sure if this is a problem with the movie or the script, or just foreshadowing for what's coming next in Part 2. Whatever the case, pieces are in motion, the fires are lit, we have another year to go but it's time for Katniss to "rage, rage against" President Snow.