jennifer-lawrence-katniss-everdeenBy Jarrod Jones. Playing catch-up with last year’s Catching Fire seems to be the primary focus for much of the first half of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. And while that does provide some narrative relief for those of us who don’t agonize over every facet of Suzanne Collins’ trio of best-selling YA novels, it also means we, fans and casual filmgoers alike, are all in for one big sit.

We all remember the broad strokes: after the spectacle of the 75th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) gets thrust into a covert rebellion after learning that she’s been positioned to be the portentously-named Mockingjay, the revolution’s marquee figurehead. What’s meant to galvanize her vengeance is the chilling fact that – as a reprisal to Ms. Everdeen’s shenanigans at the third Quarter Quell – President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has ordered the utter decimation of District 12, that plucky ghetto Katniss and her family have always called home.

That’s quite a bit of momentum to work from, but the opening chapter to The Hunger Games’ finale is mostly about consequences. Mockingjay, Part 1 owes more to what’s happened before – and what will happen soon after – than building anything substantial that would identify the film as its own entity. This causes most of Danny Strong and Peter Craig’s screenplay to spin its story-telling wheels.

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-movie-review-8a01f892-9aa6-42ce-9d4a-ac539ff4ed08Widening the scope of The Hunger Games includes hurling a larger net over the film’s ever-expanding cast of characters: Julianne Moore joins the fold as the rebellion’s silver-haired President Coin, Mahershala Ali provides support as her muscle, and it wouldn’t be a contemporary tentpole film if a cast member of Game of Thrones wasn’t somehow involved. The tricky thing is, the Hunger Games are no more – Katniss saw to that in the last chapter – so the film has very few options to thin out its widening herd. Because most of the fireworks are being reserved for Part 2 next year, the film opts to chicken out this round.

That’s a problem for director Francis Lawrence’s second pass at Games (original director Gary Ross walked away long ago), primarily so because memories of the series’ second installment – the much more ably made Catching Fire – are still so near. Catching Fire made lively entertainment out of the story’s bleak narrative trappings. Here, Mockingjay, Part 1 is altogether a dour experience, a film that will more likely drive its audience to pull the shades and turn off the phone after an opening weekend screening rather than dare attend a second viewing.

Because so much of the film is used for set-up, the majority of Mockingjay, Part 1‘s laughably unjustifiable 123 minute running time is attributed to long stretches of silence, where Katniss can sit in-between life-shortening bursts of stress endurance to consider bubbling brooks, often with on-again/off-again boything Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and sometimes with a group of hard-scrabble propagandists (Wes Chatham, Elden Henson, and Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer). These glaringly noticeable slogs bring to mind other cynically dramatic meditations like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I and the whole of The Hobbit trilogy. That’s bad company to be associated with, especially when there’s yet another movie down the pipeline to sell. What to do. What to do.


There are moments where Mockingjay‘s imagery recalls other pieces of sci-fi dystopia (like The Matrix Reloaded), or sheer disaster porn (like this year’s Godzilla), and perhaps that’s for the best: its bleak, lifeless palate doesn’t lend the film any defining characteristics of its own, making all memories of the proceedings turn into a hazy, gray fog. Any aspirations to join in on what remains of 2014’s impressive stable of blockbuster offerings puts Mockingjay in an awkward position – to please its audience by any means necessary. The desperation is palpable.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen may be the nucleus of this grim melodrama, but her primary concerns aren’t with the amassing rebellion. (Also known as: the impetus behind this entire film.) Compounding the movie’s troubling issues is her nebulous relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been taken by Snow’s patriarchy to be tortured and otherwise coerced into shilling an uneasy peace to the maddening crowds. (That abuse takes a toll on Peeta throughout the film, but the damage isn’t effectively conveyed through the actor so much as it’s set through the prism of the film’s impressive CGI budget.) We are asked to care about a character that is simply never present – Peeta’s back and forths with Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman take place entirely on a television set – and despite the previous two installments, Peeta’s plight is simply a non-issue. All things considered, there are more pressing matters to attend to, and the film all but ignores them.

Mockingjay‘s inherent lack of activity only damns its situation further: Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee Latier – after everything he experienced in his second go-around in the Hunger Games – has been delegated to the role of the rebellion’s resident quartermaster, a tech guru who bequeaths Katniss a quiver full of fairly bitchin’ incendiary arrows. The only problem is, for the entire length of the film, she fires only one. (You may have seen it happen in the film’s equally solemn trailers.) With this much sullen inactivity around, Mockingjay, Part 1 proves to be ineffective as a progression to a much larger story. When things feel like they should be shifting into higher gear, the film simply stays in neutral.