A tangential thought hooked me while watching The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the latest of the Jennifer Lawrence led YA Hunger Games franchise with the second part due out next year. Fans of Harry Potter are rabid, defensive, entitled, and intimately attached. I know, I’m one of them. Say the wrong thing—whether you approve of the attack on the burrow in Half-Blood Prince or you favor the wrong film—and verbal attack is likely. I bring this up because I love The Deathly Hallows Part 1. I love its slow, psychological pacing. I love how introspective it is, deepening and unspooling characters we already thought we knew so well, using artful images for emotional power instead of loud action. The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a vital, and maybe the only valid, comparison to Mockingjay Part 1, since, on a pure plot level, both films are limited. But where Deathly Hallows Part 1 expanded on the first half of the source material and made a beautiful and poetic movie, Mockingjay Part 1 is stretched, hallowed out, and worst of all, obvious.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has PTSD light, a cliffnotes version of the disorder that’s a shorthand for showing the viewers the opposite of a hero conquering all. Katniss’ trauma from “the games” haunts her, mostly in her sleep, and in a storytelling culture founded on hero-worship, these moments prove to be the film’s most powerful. Transitioning from action/adventure to grueling war movie, Mockingjay Part 1 might surprise the few still ignorant of where Katniss’ story ends. We meet her in District 13, an industrial underground bunker that’s halfway between the London tunnel shelters used during the World War II and Zion in The Matrix. District 13‘s President Coin (harhar), played with icy focus by Julianne Moore, and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), are trying to convince Katniss to become a propaganda piece for the rebellion when all she’s concerned with is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
It’s here, in Katniss’ initial refusal to aid the rebellion cause, that Mockingjay Part 1’s social and political allegory takes shape. The surface story isn’t interesting: it’s mostly characters sitting in dimly-lit and visually bland spaces being bummed out. Viewers may be startled most of all to learn there are only a handful of action scenes, so understanding the deeper ideas at play is more important than The Hunger Games or Catching Fire. Like I note in my review of Divergent, Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey is a coda for the YA story, hitting all the typical story boxes to plug every button of every demographic. But, for better and worse, The Hunger Games is different. Katniss is not “the one” any more than she’s a great heroic character. She’s defeatist, stubborn, and sometimes stupid, traits that aren’t just undesirable, but also loathed. She takes no qualms in prioritizing what she really wants over what the rebellion—not to mention President Snow—want her to. So Coin and Plutarch make Katniss seem like, if not become, the hero we’ve come to expect in popular storytelling.
There’s a few levels to what Mockingjay Part 1 does here. Katniss is manipulated just as much as she helps manipulate the 12 districts, which is also just as much as the storytelling manipulates us. Suzanne Collins and the filmmakers seem to make a strong case for storytelling as propaganda, and when seeing Mockingjay Part 1 from that angle, it takes on a deeper meaning the thin surface story cannot. During these scenes, however, subtlety is as annoyingly absent to us as alcohol is to Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). So many scenes are devoted to how to manipulate the masses, from President Snow to President Coin to Plutarch to Haymitch to rebellion propaganda “director” Cressida (a gorgeous Natalie Dormer), to Katniss, to Peeta, that it has the same quality of a hearing a never ending joke with an obvious punchline. The only difference is at a party you can change circles of conversation, but you’re trapped in your seat for Mockingjay.
Francis Lawrence reversed the many problems of Catching Fire with clearly mounted action scenes and world building, making a film as potent as it was impressive. For his second second Hunger Games he boldly changes it up, brazenly using war movie tropes to bring war-torn Panem to life. No war reference stone goes unturned. There’s elements of Schindler’s List and the famous holocaust documentary Shoah when we visit the war-torn District 12, where an entire town has been razed to rubble, adorned with burned skulls and rib cages. PG-13 has rarely been as grim, and parents of younger viewers should beware (although there’s a Katniss-Bond Q moment straight out of another movie that’s tonally jarring).
There’s Shaky-cam war scenes right out of Saving Private Ryan, giving the action a visceral gut-punch that promises Mockingjary Part 2 will hit hard. The ending unsubtly riffs Zero Dark Thirty. The third act involves stealth copters gliding through darkness, a covert team moving through a darkened building in sci-fi nightvision, all as a beautiful heroine stares at mission screens, helpless. Francis Lawrence is a talented filmmaker, and you have to applaud his ambition in borrowing from the best for a young adult adaptation.
Mockingjay Part 1, like Katniss herself, is applaudably audacious and willing to take risks, but Francis Lawrence isn’t as adept with a camera as Katniss is with a bow. He hopes to make Mockingjay Part 1 a meta-satire with thrills—art— but he fails to truly elevate the material beyond the confines of a shoddy script and uneventful source material. The film’s best moment is of Jennifer Lawrence singing with her face beautifully juxtaposed against abstracted flowing water, a rare moment of inspiration in a film in need of many more. The script, written by series newcomers Peter Craig and Danny Strong, underwrite characters to the point of self-parody. Katniss always lacked the intellectual nuance, but in Mockingjay Part 1 she’s stupid instead of stubborn. The venerable cast are saviors to the film almost as much as Katniss is a savior to the rebellion, but you see little Donald Sutherland’s gleefully sinister President Snow. He’s always been a highlight.
Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or RSS below: