The Hunger Games aren’t over yet! Director Frances Lawrences returns to see the franchise out with this two part adaptation of the bestselling YA science fiction series which sees Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen continue her quest to lead the people of Panem to freedom. The middle instalment, Catching Fire, turned out to be the highest grossing film of 2013 and an unexpected critical darling. This film also marks the final screen appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away shortly after filming his scenes. No doubt it was a commercially driven decision to split the final novel into two films, which has proved lucrative for other franchises (The Hobbit, Breaking Dawn). Mockingjay – Part 1 goes deeper and darker than its predecessors but yet it still manages to thrill. There is a noticeable darkening shift in mood, tone, emphasis and even colour as we exit the arena, leaving behind the reality-tv bloodsports of the first two movies. Instead we are taken underground where we counter a grimly escalating vision of all-out-war, with Katniss as the face of the revolution.
The movie begins with Katniss rescued from the ‘Quarter Quell’ Hunger Games and brought to the ultra-secret District 13. She is in hiding in a large, grey-walled subterranean bunker together with an angry rebel faction who want to take their fight to the decadent Capitol. They have been biding time, waiting to unite the districts and overthrow the totalitarian President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the entire Capitol, which exploits the resources of the districts. District 13’s poised, formidable leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) urges the reluctant Katniss to officially embrace her new role as the Mockingjay - the beacon of hope for the oppressed populous of the outer districts, where rioting has broken out. She believes that Katniss and the symbol of the Mockingjay are the only hope of keeping the spirit of rebellion alive. She is to be the face of the revolution and this time it will be advertised so her hair, her uniform, her politics – all have to be carefully sculpted to appeal to the masses. Katniss’s PR man, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film was dedicated), coaches her in the art of “Propos” – propaganda designed to sway the hearts and minds of the people. By her side again are the ever-ardent Gale (Liam Hemsworth); Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who still maintains her insatiable need for high style and glamour. They want to demonstrate to Panem’s increasingly restless masses that Katniss lives and is ready to fight.
Over in the Capitol, President Snow is having Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) tortured. He is regularly trotted out on live TV to be interviewed by the smarmy and emotionally manipulative Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). He appears drugged and brainwashed as he reluctantly urges the rebels to end the civil war and agree to a cease-fire. Snow and his regime are trying to take down the Mockingjay by having their own mascot paraded in front of the camera. Meanwhile, to the understandable chagrin of her longtime companion, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who has bravely joined the fight against the Capitol, Katniss seems more interested in Peeta’s safety than anything else, including the success of their cause.
The real strength of this film hinges is still the ever-engaging and reliable Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. She has always been rather cold and standoffish, almost entirely devoid of humour or any real interest in romance but that is what makes her an exceptionally strong heroine with all the requisite qualities – she is strong, smart, stubborn, angry but determined. She is a reluctant hero, not a superhero, but a credible and effective leader that we can engage with.
In comparison to the first two “Hunger Games” movies, “Mockingjay, Part 1” more explicitly examines the power of propaganda, mass uprising and media manipulation as the action moves away from the killing fields of the Games and into a full-on revolution. The plot rests less on action and more on debates about how to start the action. This shift in focus does threaten to distance some viewers who may have been hoping for the bright hued battle spectacle of the previous films. Yet I like that this film goes deeper and darker and I think the drama and tone are powerful and effective. The story is consistently gripping, engaging and well paced. Cynical audiences will feel like the story is being padded to justify the split into 2 movies. However, avid fans of the franchise, like me, will be delighted with the opportunity to spend more time with these characters and with the unfolding of the suspenseful, powerful revolution. This movie isn’t just a 2 hour build up, it stands perfectly well on its own. Having said that, it is a pity that we are left on the edge of a cliff for another year, until Part 2 of Mockingjay will be released. This film just left me wanting more – that can only be a good thing.