November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The people have spoken: how many 
"Hunger Games" movies should have been made.

Grade: Incomplete
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Natalie Dormer and Jeffrey Wright
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 3 min.

During the The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 (hereinafter Mockingjay – Part 1), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow rebels flee underground to escape an aerial bombardment by the Capitol’s forces. Holed up in a dark bunker, Katniss passes the time by shining a flashlight at her pet cat Buttercup and watching with amusement as the feline futilely follows the darting but insubstantial luminescence.

The scene is couched as a metaphor for the manner President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the all-powerful Capitol is toying with the insurgents. It’s equally applicable to the band of moviegoers huddled in darkened theaters, entranced by the incandescent glow of a silver screen sequel that portends promise but delivers precious little. Mockingjay – Part 1 is almost entirely centered around the marketing of a rebellion, which is oddly appropriate for the film adaptation of a book that’s split in two in order to wring out every cent of box-office potential.

It’s The Matrix: Revolutions of The Hunger Games film series. There’s Zion, in the form of an underground city housing the rebel inhabitants of District 13. Like Neo, Katniss is in full messianic mode after her defiant arrow in the Quarter Quell triggered widespread arisings throughout Panem. Moreover, the film is a tedious progenitor that exclusively subsists on its already strip-mined mythology.

When Katniss awakes in District 13, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, borrowing Meryl Streep’s wig from “The Giver”), PR flack Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the other leaders of the rebellion ask her to serve as the symbol for their cause, the “Mockingjay.” The totalitarian Capitol is suppressing freedoms. The Mockingjay emblem has been banned. Summary executions are being carried out throughout the districts. And District 12, Katniss’ home, lies in ruin, littered with the charred remains of its 10,000 citizens.

“But where’s my motivation!?” Katniss seems to ask. Sadly, that requires a District 8 hospital full of wounded, which is promptly destroyed by Snow as soon as Katniss and a camera crew pay it a visit looking for inspiring verite footage for their war promo. Done and done. Plutarch and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) produce the “propos,” Cressida (Natalie Dormer) is brought on to put Katniss through her paces, and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is in charge of wardrobe.

On the opposite side of the propaganda war is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is being held inside the Capitol and, perhaps against his will, beaming out disinformation about Katniss and the rebellion during a series of televised interviews. Katniss wants Peeta rescued, but she also pines for Gale (Liam Hemsworth). And while the Team Gale/Team Peeta narrative goes nowhere fast, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is unwisely relegated to sporadic court jester.

“Moves and countermoves,” Snow mutters at one point, and nothing better describes the entirety of the film’s plodding plotline. The true misstep of Mockingjay – Part 1 is the obvious padding it fashions around a two-hour movie about half of Suzanne Collins’ YA novel. Katniss and Gale go hunting and sit by a river, for no purpose. Katniss croons “The Hanging Tree” for the cameras, again while sitting by a river. Katniss kills a few minutes chasing after her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) after she decides to save Buttercup just as the blast doors are closing before a bombing attack. “I just couldn’t live with myself,” Willow whimpers without any apparent sense of context.

But mostly it’s endless speechifying from Katniss, from Snow, from Peeta, from Finnick (Sam Claflin) and especially Coin, shrewdly cast as far less monstrous as Snow but no less dictatorial. There’s a moment late in the film that conveys the film’s apparent aim when, as the rebel leader is delivering one of her innumerable pep talks, we glimpse Plutarch in the background, mouthing along the words to his speech. It’s a Wag the Dog moment that conveys how selling a war is an integral part of winning one. But it’s also a point that could have been established in a couple of scenes, not the entire feature-length film. After all, the previous Hunger Games attacked reality television and economic inequality, but not at the expense of a storyline.

Like Katniss, Lawrence puts gumption behind her cause—aside from one crying scene too many, she does nothing here to tarnish her acting luster playing a character that now feels suddenly stagnant. It’s the leaden messaging that weighs down this perfunctory placeholder. Maybe Katniss will shoot more than one arrow in Mockingjay – Part 2. Let’s hope so, because the lethargic Part 1 wildly misses the mark.