Let’s be honest, Mockingjay didn’t need to be split into two parts. I totally understand the reasoning ($$$), but I was worried Part 1 would be all exposition, and none of the good stuff. But I was pleasantly surprised by Part 1 of the final book in the Hunger Games saga. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig make do with the not-so-great novel, and deliver another exciting and well-made entry in the franchise. Bolstered by impressive performances that get better every film, and a sense of urgency that sets the film apart from the first two, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a big success.
Mockingjay Part 1 picks up after Catching Fire. The rebels have set up base in District 13, and are planning a revolution with this other districts against the Capitol. Peeta is still in the Capitol, being used to torment Katniss and the rest of the rebels. In District 13, Katniss is clashing with President Coin (Julianne Moore), and has agreed to be the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion, and participate in propaganda videos against the Capitol.
Mockingjay Part 1, like all of the Hunger Games, is all very topical, but Mockingjay is even more so. The script deals with some relevant issues we find in our society today. Katniss being the subject of propaganda videos, and her camera crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) give us a lot of interesting scenes. The scene in District 8 is a harrowing a torn-down war zone, and it’s all very dark and significant.
The first thing you’ll notice in Mockingjay Part 1 is that the tone is completely different. It takes about 30 minutes for the first joke to crack, and the film drags a little in the beginning. This is the theme with final novels, but with Mockingjay the split part tends to show its weaknesses. With Harry Potter, it worked. With Twilight, not so much. Director Lawrence makes it work somewhat with Mockingjay, but it isn’t without losses. The beginning is a bit of a mess, and it isn’t until Haymitch shows up that the film really kicks into gear. Some characters aren’t given much to do, and others a bit too much. There is about twice as much Gale as there should be, and the overemphasis of Cressida and Finnick is a bit strange. Obviously Part 2 will be better, but I would’ve preferred one big cohesive film that gave every character a chance to shine.
But damn, how good of a performer is Jennifer Lawrence? She gets better as Katniss as the series as progresses. Lawrence is such a natural performer, and knows when she needs to bring it and also when she needs to pull back. In the book, Katniss is a bit of a mess, but luckily in the film she’s straightened out a bit. This characterization is well needed for a great finale where she struggles getting Peeta back. Josh Hutcherson has also stepped up his game. Although he isn’t given too much to work with, he has grown most as a performer out of anyone in this franchise. The rest of the cast is naturally great, especially Elizabeth Banks, whose character Effie has been written into the finale (to great effect, I might add).
Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, and Donald Sutherland round out the returning players and each gets their moment in the spotlight. New to the series is Julianne Moore as President Coin and while she is definitely chilling and a force to be reckoned with, she doesn’t hold a candle to the always-eerie President Snow.
Mockingjay Part 1 offers plenty of thrills, but it’s the subtle, quieter moments that really shine. A scene in District 12 where Katniss begins to sing might seem a bit out of place, but stick with it because it’s a great moment. Some of the monologues are great here, and the rapport between Katniss and Snow is better than ever. There’s some good writing here that borrows some important lines from the book but also keeps the film from ever feeling like other young-adult fare. What sets The Hunger Games franchise apart from films like Divergent or The Maze Runner is its attention to detail in world-building but also its believability and dialogue. We’ve been with these characters for almost three years now, and Lawrence has built upon what director Gary Ross started in brilliant ways.
While Mockingjay Part 1 isn’t as tight as it could be, and it doesn’t match the heights of Catching Fire, it’s still a great entry in the franchise that sets us up for one thrilling finale next November. Thrilling action but also great characterization highlight the third film in the series, with knockout performances from the always-great cast. I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of the franchise, which should tell you something about the success and excitement that these films can deliver.