From stadiums to tedium, the third entry in Lions Gate‘s multi-billion dollar franchise is decidedly half a story. Following up on what I like to call “Harry Potter Precedent”, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 takes us through the first half of Suzanne Collins‘ 390 page young adult dystopian fiction without ever getting to the fanfare of an actual conclusion. As point of comparison, “The Hunger Games” was 374 pages and “Catching Fire” was 391. So it’s no stretch to say that the material has been, er, stretched. However in that money-hustlin’ act of distention, something more singular and nuanced has taken shape. Mockingjay: Part 1 – though lax on events – rises up as easily the most thematically rich of the franchise, offering up characters actually worth exploring and a thoughtful meditation into the psychology of revolution. Those wanting explosions will undoubtedly be left cold as this quiet trek to the end is much more focused on emotional implosions.
Disbanded after the catastrophic conclusion of the Third Quarter Quell, Katniss is separated from Peeta and now takes refuge in the bombed out remains of District 13. While costumery, training and pageantry made up the bulk of the former chapters in Katniss’ previous stories, Mockingjay immediately unfurls a laundry list of political intrigue. Do not be mistaken, this is no longer a story about head-to-head combat, it’s one about sneaks in the shadows and stabs in the dark. As Peeta and Katniss drift further apart, a new rebel army must convince the population of Panem to band together and overthrow the tyranny of the Capitol and the serpentine President Snow. It’s an entirely new direction for the franchise, one unmistakably slower and more deliberate, that makes the absolute most of its substantially limited material.
The Hunger Games‘ central themes were rooted in power relationships, social class standing and public perception. Catching Fire‘s foot was placed firmly in the door of manipulation, loyalty and PDA. Mockingjay however is all about sacrifice; the sacrifice of life, self and artifice.
In a couple of visually powerful scenes, hordes of rebels bum-rush the Capitol Peacekeepers; men of violence in starched whites; faceless monkeys in sterilized jumpsuits popping off precise machine gun bursts like Call of Duty junkies. They are the Israeli tech to the Palestinian rocks. These troglodyte abandoning their lives in pursuit of the greater good, this is what the movie is about. If you need to put a face to the name of sacrifice, these be them. This proletariat working class rising against the elite bourgeoisie harkens back to Marxist theory and director Francis Lawrence knows it. And exploits it. He puffs Mockingjay‘s thematic elements into visually arresting kamikazes of epic scope. It makes for some potent scene work, conjuring up a science-fiction take on the French Revolution’s insurmountable odds and the death toll that accompanies such. It’s not quite peacocking but the man clearly knows what he is doing.
To a slightly more diminutive degree, Katniss too must sacrifice. But her loss is more emotional; more of a personal transformation (sans multiple fire-themed costume changes.) Her sense of self must be muted (though I’m not entirely convinced that she ever did have a very pronounced sense of self). At the behest of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) she must rise into an unwanted leadership position, at the risk of putting those she loves in increasingly tight spots. It becomes clear by this point that Katniss is but a kid. A pawn. A pretty face to rally around. It’s both demeaning and complimentary. Buck up kid.
Her arc in this third chapter is about stepping into a role you don’t want; about being an emblem for something larger than yourself. Unlike Batman, she is the symbol that Panem needs and the one it wants. She pouts at first, and poorly acts her way through a to-be televised revolution campaign, but when the chips fall, she’s as game as the film’s namesake.
Another character – who from the get-go has hierarchically placed maintaining a sense of self above all else – bargains with losing his identity under untold torment. As Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is finally able to communicate something more than puppy dog devotion and his physical and emotional transformation is fittingly jarring. Pity the same can’t be said for pretty boy Liam Hemsworth.
In this whirlwind of sacrifice, even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) must deal with the stylistic hell of a drab jumpsuit. In Maslovian terms, some sacrifices are greater than others but all sacrifices take their toll. To go without fuchsia eyeliner may be as taxing to Effie as an enthusiastic throttling may be to Katniss. We all must take our punches and roll appropriately.
Though I found much to appreciate within the thematic elements of Mockingjay – Part 1, I cannot deny that this first act is total foreplay. But it’s sweet, sexy foreplay. The kind of foreplay that seeks to remind you that sometimes the teasing is more gratifying than the climax. Sure, the next installment promises death and destruction and whiskers on kittens but there’s something sweetly satisfying about silent implosions in the eye of the storm.
Perhaps because Mockingjay – Part 1 marks the first time I’ve felt invested in Katniss’s many relationships, the performances shine more than ever. Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss is rounded out by attributes other than “hardened”, “resilient” and “badass.” Here she’s very much out of control – the antithesis of what the glorious icon the rebellion wants to present her as. For the first time, it feels like she actually gets to, you know, act.
A somber tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman denotes the end of the film and – not that it’s much of a surprise – his performance here is truly noteworthy. It won’t be remembered amongst his greatest but it’s a sweet, family-friendly reminder of what we’ve lost with his passing. Hoffman was able to communicate so much with so little; the sarcastic roll of an eye or a flick of the head that says, “Told you so” mean so much when rolled off Hoffman’s full shoulders.
As tensions mount in seat-hugging waves, a late-stage scene has President Snow transform into a full blown Star Fox villain. A bloated talking head grinning and cackling like a caricature, his white mane is that of a political tiger; his flesh-eating smile as poisonous as nightlock. It seems like the first time Donald Sutherland is actually chewing into the role.
But this is not a fun movie. Nor is it really geared towards kids. In the third outing of Hunger Games, you’re more likely to find subtext than battle. And yet Mockingjay – Part 1 is easily the most violent of the series. However, the violence isn’t physical so much as it is emotional; the taxing price of hope. This beginning of the closing chapter stomps out what it truly means to revolt; about the quiet minutia of a coup; the slogging footwork of a revolution. It’s not particularly eventful but it’s bloody well more interesting than more lathering, rinsing and repeating.