In a way, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part One is one of Hollywood’s favorite kind of films: it’s a movie about making movies.
To inspire the rest of the Districts to take up arms against the Capital, the Mockingjay team is shooting propaganda advertisements — or, as they say, a “propo,” because it wouldn’t be The Hunger Games without a ridiculous name for a relatively ordinary thing — starring Katniss, the face of the revolution. But even after all that on-camera experience from her two rounds in the Arena, Katniss still doesn’t have the whole acting thing down; she can only be “on” when she’s removed from the soundstage and taken to the destruction above ground. She needs a bomb to go off before she can. Katniss (surely you already know this is Jennifer Lawrence) is the driving force of the rebellion, but she’s also a total reactionary. She needs to be led, pushed to the brink, before she can be convinced to do anything. Her every move, it seems, is willed into action by the thoughtful manipulations of Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in whose memory the film is dedicated).
The scenes of Katniss failing at staged propaganda provide some of the film’s much-needed comic relief. (Is there anything funnier than watching great actors pretend they don’t know how to act?) But what’s really striking is when she finally nails it, and she and her team are watching the completed video. The ad looks familiar. Not because we just watched Katniss film it. Because it looks exactly like a trailer for Mockingjay. It even ends with that giant, spinning, gold mockingjay, and the capital letters banging out the words JOIN THE REVOLUTION.
Are the trailers for The Hunger Games movies supposed to look like District 13 propaganda? Or is District 13 propaganda supposed to look like a trailer for a Hunger Games movie? Are we supposed to notice that what we’re seeing is a trailer inside a movie inside a trailer? Are they talking about us?
That the film gets to such a thought-provoking place, that there isn’t a moment in the movie that doesn’t feel thoughtful, is a testament to the way the adaptation has completely transcended its source material. Usually, when a book gets turned into a movie, a compromise is made: audiences give something up — nuance, detail, complexity — to get something bigger, yet blander, in a return: a movie. But the Hunger Games is an atypical case. The books, as written by Suzanne Collins, read more like movie treatments than actual novels. As a result, the movies, on the strength of fantastic acting, powerful imagery and a moody, eerie soundscape, have more nuance, detail, and complexity than the series ever did on paper. The books are YA. The movies are grown up.
With Mockingjay, we pick up right where we left off at the end of Catching Fire: Katniss, against her will and without her knowledge, has been transported to District 13. Contrary to the Capital-spouted popular mythology, District 13 is still very much alive: it’s a militaristic city entirely underground, helmed by a president for whom the revolution never stopped. The terms set the tone: this is a war, lives have been and will continue to be lost, and all the heroes are already veterans. Katniss is still suffering from Arena-induced PTSD, screaming herself awake from nightmares she can’t quell. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is at the Capital, a prisoner of totalitarian dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss is back with the people she has been fighting for all this time — her sister, her mother, the hometown point in her love triangle, childhood best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) — but it’s clear that she has never felt more isolated or alone.
Much of the movie is dedicated to this idea of Katniss embracing her destiny as a symbol for the revolution, whether or not she will accept the mantle of Mockingjay, as if she has any choice in the matter anymore, and how she comes to terms with what that responsibility will require of her. She has what it takes, even if she doesn’t know it, and she gets what she needs, even though she doesn’t know what she needs until she has it. She even has the perfect uniform: it is beautiful, powerful and practical (unlike so many other girl-hero getups, you never wonder how she’ll be able to fight without falling out of her clothes.) Yet for all the on-point fashion and the fiery fight sequences, the real tension of the movie is internal. Is Katniss ready to be a hero? Does it even matter anymore, whether she wants to be a hero or not?
Another, more meta question looms over this whole enterprise: why, exactly, is this Mockingjay, Part One? Why can’t it just be Mockingjay? Is it necessary to make two movies out of the book that was, by far, the weakest installment in the trilogy? A book that is not significantly longer than either of the books that preceded it? Not really, no. And it shows. While Mockingjay is affecting and compelling and, to invoke a scientific term here, awesome, it mostly consists of setting things up for a finale we’ll all be waiting at least a year to see.
The only reason, really, that there are two Mockingjay movies is because there were two Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows movies. Hallows actually needed to be the double-feature package; a single movie could not possibly have done justice to the tome that closed the series. With that one-two punch of a closer, the Hogwarts gang grossed over $2.3 billion wordwide and, in doing so, inadvertently provided the exception that launched the rule. Now we need Parts One and Two of every franchise finale ever, just because. Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Parts One and Two. Divergent: Allegiant Parts One and Two. (Though the backlash from Divergent fans who “feel taken advantage of, used as a cash cow” is already beginning.) And now, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Parts One and Two.
The result of splitting Mockingjay in two is that function winds up following form, and if you go looking for the weaknesses in that strategy, they will not be hard to find. Mockingjay is basically two hours of preamble. It’s an action movie that takes its time, because there is a great deal of time to fill and not, strictly speaking, a great deal of plot with which to fill it. We watch Katniss slowly survey destruction. We watch her do this more than once. Maybe a few too many times.
But as long as we’re going to be bloating the finales of all the obnoxious, pointless franchises out there that do nothing but pander to the basest desires of that coveted 18-to-34-year-old white bro demo, as long as we are not even going to let the last echoes of Christian Bale’s gravely Batvoice fade from our memories before salivating over the first teaser images of the Batffleck, we damn well better give the “too much is never enough” treatment to a film based on a book series by a woman, propelled by a female hero, that not only stars a woman who is a warrior first and a lover second but is also chock full of interesting, funny, complicated and meaty roles for women: Elizabeth Banks as the ruffled-but-not-ruined Effie Trinket; Julianne Moore as the besieged general and ward of District 13, President Coin; Natalie Dormer as Cressida, a media-savvy defector from the Capital; Jena Malone as the gutsy, damaged Johanna Mason (glimpsed, alas, only briefly in this installment).
And at the heart of all of this is a stunning, kickass performance. Lawrence –- sometimes I forget this, charmed as I am by her real life, tequila-swilling and Letterman-bantering persona –- acts with every pore in her face. Observing her silently absorb shock, seeing her think and feel and panic and seethe and hope, all of it is so compelling. And just when you think, “Seems like she’s been looking at that landscape of rotting bones for a while now,” something blows up. The action sequences, when they come, really do feel violent, with actual stakes and real body counts. More than a dystopia or a fantasy, Mockingjay feels like a war movie. It is smart, confident, raw and intense. And it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: it leaves you wanting more.