Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
Directed by Francis Lawrence; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

Rating: 6/10

With the presumably thrilling conclusion to The Hunger Games series just over the horizon, we return to last year’s Mockingjay – Part 1 in an attempt for my reviews to maintain at least some contemporary relevance. There are two ways to look at a film which is part of a series. One is to view it as a chapter in the larger story, making this one little more than the calm before the storm. The other way is to see if the narrative works as a standalone film, and sadly here it does not.

The Hunger Games has followed the now ‘traditional’ trend of turning the last part of a young adult novel series into a two part picture (Harry Potter, Twilight, to an extent The Hobbit) so that Part 1 becomes so much preamble and set-up for a ‘missing’ final act. Is it a cynical cash-grab to stretch the franchise out for another year, or sincere attempt to do justice to the literature? Who can say?

With Mockingjay – Part 2, this effect is thoroughly in place, moving from one relatively unsatisfying cliff-hanger at the end of Catching Fire to another at the end of itself. It somehow manages to be another big ol’ film of (just) over two hours, although it’s almost half an hour shorter than Catching Fire, which took over half its running time to actually get to the bloomin’ Hunger Games.

Though the full title retains the series banner, there are no games here, so the arena combat angle that provided a clear structure to the first two films is gone. Maybe that’s for the best. The second film was in many ways a retread of the first, though the pre-game ruminations I’ve just lamented were really about the seeds of rebellion, and our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her Mockingjay becoming the symbols of the revolution (the Mockingjay starts life as a symbolic token Katniss is given by an elderly neighbour in the first film, which gradually takes on greater and greater significance).

So it’s not a standalone story, but what’s this film about, and where does it take the characters we met in the last two films? At first glance, not very far. Most of the movie takes place in an underground bunker where the rebellion is based, safe below District 13 (a mysterious place previously believed to have been long destroyed), while the two sides throw propaganda back and forth at each other. Katniss does get out into the field, but she only fires one arrow (although granted, it does quite some damage).

But at the film’s core is this media warfare of hearts and minds, and Katniss’ initial reluctance to play into it. Her struggle is to weigh the needs of the many, who see so much in her, against her own personal losses and dissatisfaction with how the revolution is being run. She is always asking who should have been saved, and at what cost?

The film inherits the great cast of the series, from Jennifer Lawrence herself, whose name is now synonymous with the franchise and characters, to the continued presence of Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks, who play off each other nicely after their frosty relationship of the last two films. What is good is that as we spend more time out of the area with the rebels, somehow-third-billed Gale (Liam Hemsworth) finally has a little more to do, getting out into the field with Katniss and even leading one of the film’s few action sequences, a daring raid on the capital to liberate the captured victors of Catching Fire.

Similarly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who tragically died during filming, manages to maintain a complete and worthy presence as the games master turned rebel propagandist. He receives a dedication at the end of a film, and one wonders how his absence will affect Part 2. His more reasoned encouragement of Katniss brings a subtle reserve to offset the fiery determination of District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) who is all rousing speeches and lack of compromise, continually at loggerheads with our heroine. Much of the first third of the film is her coercive (and Hoffman’s measured) attempts to make her agree to participate in the propaganda; though we ask ourselves how different this really is to the gaudy reality TV of the first film.

Everybody has their own two cents to say on how the revolution should be run, but on the other side of the coin (see what I did there?) President Snow (Donald Sutherland) abandons his affable façade in the face of all out war to snarl and gloat from the video screen.

I have said that true action sequences are few and far between; they are dispersed like raisins in a bowl of porridge through the film’s inflated length, but they come as a re-engaging wake up call. I particularly enjoyed the scenes of open rebellion in other Districts, as it is always exciting to see such a well realised world explored in more depth, all the more so when a large chunk of the movie is set underground.

These scenes also show how returning Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence has finally shaken off the assumed atmosphere of his predecessor Gary Ross’ first film to deliver the darker sequel suggested by his back catalogue (Constantine, I am Legend). Of note is the apocalyptic sequence in which Katniss breaks down while exploring the ruins of her former home, District 12. The Hunger Games universe has always come with a high human cost, but never has it been so graphic.

So while the film is well made and there are many standout scenes, the pacing still feels slow and the dramatic narrative is far from satisfying. After all, it’s really only half a film and will only work when we’re marathoning that stuff on box set next year.

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