Review: 'Mockingjay Part 1' Sets a Fine Stage for Superb Series' End
by Jeremy Kirk
November 21, 2014
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I, the first of a two-part finale wrapping up the beloved and lucrative Hunger Games franchise, is a stand-in representation of a number of rages in Hollywood. A dystopian future in which the people, under the control of a brutish government, are beginning to rebel? Check. A tough, female protagonist who finds her emotions torn between two men? Double check. Even the idea of splitting the final novel in Suzanne Collins' young adult series into two films is matching the current "way to do things." Despite its familiar tendencies, Mockingjay - Part I is a solid beginning, a fine launching point for the true finale yet to come, and for what it's worth, it's as entertaining as it is justified.
Kicking off directly after the events of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Mockingjay brings the series' reluctant hero, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), to the front of the resistance. Many of the people living in the districts of the future society of Panem are fed up with the intollerant treatment at the hands of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and Katniss' proneness for defiance is just the spark needed to whip up their rebellious frenzy.
Stationed in the once-thought deserted District 13, the rebellion, led by their own President Coin (Julianne Moore), begins their moves and countermoves that will bring their revolt to he walls of The Capitol. Katniss, on the other hand, just wants a chance to rescue her Hunger Games ally and lover, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), from President Snow's clutches.
Much has already been expressed about Mockingjay being split into two films, most of the arguments being on the side that sees this first part as bloated and unnecessarily padded. However, Mockingjay - Part I easily justifies every scene by continuing to up the ante on both sides, the rebellion and The Capitol. Adapted from Collins' novel by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, the screenplay packs every scene with the same power and emotion its protagonist personifies. This first part deals more in propaganda than flying bullets and arrows, but that doesn't detract from the importance it plays in the build towards its finale. Mockingjay - Part I establishes the players and politics of war. Granted its impact will be that much more forceful once the entirety of the story its telling is laid out. That doesn't make it unnecessary.
What you won't see here is Katniss being the arrow-flinging badass established in the first two films, but this too is easily justified in what it does show. Here we have a heroine who stands up for the defenseless, the kind of person who would volunteer her life in The Hunger Games to keep her young sister from having to do the same. Her defiance picks up wherever she sees injustice, whether it's at the hands of a ruling and sadistic government or even the miscalculated and skeptical actions of the very rebellion she's tasked with leading. Her compassion for Peeta stems from her desire to see him safe, a far cry from the banal love triangle of something like the Twilight series.
Without wall-to-wall action, even without the Games themselves, Mockingjay - Part I establishes Panem as a seriously bleak and violent society. That's nothing new for this series, but the atmosphere, executed with stunning bite by director Francis Lawrence, lays a heavy weight on top of the action. Here we see fields of bones and dead bodies left for the scavenger dogs to tear apart. We have bombed-out buildings serving as make-shift hospitals with little chance for the wounded. Mockingjay - Part I delivers the aftermath of war with extremely chilling imagery, all the more to whet the appetites of action junkies waiting for what's sure to be a dynamite second part.
Thankfully, the emotional resonance continues to skyrocket due to performances from Lawrence, Hutcherson, and a slew of returning and first-time performances. Lawrence exudes an effortless strength in every role she fills, and Katniss Everdeen is a suitably profound character. Hutcherson, given little more to do here than talk into the camera, finds a way in equalling that strength. Liam Hemsworth as the third side to the series' lead triangle has little to do this time around but powers through his character to bring about something of significance.
The supporting cast is a who's who of fine, acting talent. Sutherland and Moore play their respective, presidential parts each with a death grip of sincerity. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson are welcome returns both in terms of character and performance, their roles this time around altered just enough to offer up something fresh. Philip Seymour Hoffman returns, as well, with a slight variation on the character we saw him play in Catching Fire. As expected he's phenomenal for how subdued he plays it.
Much of what keeps hope alive for the entirety of The Hunger Games franchise is the collective strength of its cast, but it's an important piece of the larger, successful whole. While the Twilight films only served to please an audience who had already been swept up by fandom, The Hunger Games films continue to blow away expectations, winning over fans and those of us uninitiated by the novels alike. When all is said and done, there's sure to be a powerhouse of a series to behold from beginning to end. Mockingjay - Part I, while not as confined a success as one would hope, is a charged, inciting, and, yes, satisfying first half that is sure to even win over the naysayers. That is, once Mockingjay - Part II hits.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk