Movie review: ‘Mockingjay: Part 1’

Mockingjay“To split or not to split?” That seems to be the recent question in Hollywood in regards to book-to-movie adaptations. Film makers split the final “Twilight” novel into two movies, and Peter Jackson took one book — “The Hobbit” — and split it into three parts. As a financial move, it makes perfect sense. After all, you’ll make more money with more films, right? However, dividing a single book into multiple parts doesn’t always make artistic sense, and film makers run the risk of having to spread the material too thinly. That just might be the case with the next chapter in “The Hunger Games” franchise, “Mockingjay: Part 1.”

“Mockingjay: Part 1” covers the first half of the material in the final book of Suzanne Collins‘ best-selling post-apocalyptic trilogy. By this point in the series, the heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), has become a battle-hardened but traumatized warrior. After winning “The Hunger Games” — a televised competition where teenagers are forced to fight to the death — she thought she would be safe from the oppressive government, known as the Capitol, in North America’s bleak future. However, she’s sent back for an “all-star” round of the games, which ends when a band of rebels rescue Katniss and announce their plans to turn her into the symbolic head of their uprising.

Katniss knows the Capitol is evil and must be stopped, but she is reluctant to become the leader of that fight. She fears for the safety of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her friend and maybe love interest who competed with her in the all-star Hunger Games but has been captured by the Capitol. He’s been turned into what appears to be a brainwashed pawn. As the war escalates, Katniss and the Rebels must decide if the casualty cost is too high a price to pay for victory.

Jennifer Lawrence is excellent, once again, as Katniss. She brings a sense of fire and anger to the role, but is also able in quiet moments to let a hint of vulnerability slip through. There’s a great scene when Katniss finally accepts the role of Mockingjay — while doing a Rebel propaganda shoot at a war-ravaged hospital in District 8 — and you can see her eyes burning with righteous indignantion as she gives an impromptu speech that carries far more power than the scripted lines the Rebel leaders wanted her to say. The other characters — and the audience — can’t take their eyes off her.

The film also contains some thought-provoking political themes, and there are moments where some of the Rebel leaders’ decisions make us uneasy, and we question just how much better these leaders are than the dictatorial President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the Capitol. Is Rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore) a moral leader, and is she really the leader at all? Is Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the master of propaganda, really wielding all the power through his talent for persuasion and swaying public opinion?

“Mockingjay: Part 1” is worth watching for “Hunger Games” fans but I do have to admit that so far, it’s my least favorite film in the franchise, and I think that probably has something to do with the fact the movie was split into two parts. The film is still rated “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s signficiantly lower than its predecessors.  “Mockingjay: Part 1” doesn’t pack the same visceral punch as the first film, which had a group of teenagers fighting to the death, nor does it achieve the same mix of political intrigue and the adrenalin rush of the games in “Catching Fire.” “Mockingjay: Part 1” feels just a little too much like a prelude to “Mockingjay: Part 2,” which people will probably remember more. “Part 1” felt like it needed a bigger action set piece/battle to really set up the tension for the final film, and I thought some of the most intriguing characters from “Catching Fire” — such as Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone)  — are given short shift in this film.

I’m very curious to see what the film makers have done with “Mockingjay: Part 2.” Fans of the book know (spoiler alert!) there will be some intense battle scenes as a team of Rebels invade the Capitol. I’m guessing it will be a stronger film than Part 1, even though the book received some backlash for its ending. At least for now, “Catching Fire” remains the crown jewel in the “Hunger Games” franchise.


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