Photo courtesy of LionsGate
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Opens November 21
More than most dystopian riffs on the subject, The Hunger Games (the first) conveys the shock of seeing entertainment as both a method and an image of suppression, endlessly reenacting the division of a nation. With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (aka The Hunger Games Part 3 Part 1) the series reframes that obsession with media, centering on Katniss Everdeen as the new, authentic face of the uprising. Newly based in the underground bunkers of District 13— where Julianne Moore’s President Coin leads a gray-jumpsuited rebellion with a hidden military—Katniss is recruited to sell the country’s mad-as-hell dissatisfaction to itself for inspiration, while in the capital her butter-bland tele-sweetheart Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is put on TV as an admonitory shill against the fighting.
Francis Lawrence’s gray sequel bumps along with this new tit-for-tat battle of images—“moves and countermoves” as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) puts it—as District 13 and inspired rebels across the land take actions against the capital. Katniss is given a film crew to record her and encourage sloganeering in stirring rubble-strewn locales; Jennifer Lawrence spends a lot of time reacting with horror or indignation at things, or, more poised, coining revolutionary slogans. If there’s a meta-drama here for Lawrence’s own career leaps, it’s not bad: Katniss is asked again and again to can her distinct spontaneity and passion for the people at large, aided by her star handlers, who at one point recount their favorite memories of her heroism, lest any of us forgot. It’s tough to resolve whether the series is trying to be smart about the need for the revolution to be televised—even the toppling of a ludicrous, murderous regime needs an ad campaign—or if the media story is simply a facile device for charting narrative progress.
What vivid distinct detail the series boasts keeps waxing and waning: A suicide mission by ordinary lumberjacks inspired by Katniss is stirring, but it’s part of the usual Hollywood-screenplay puppet-like view of a call-and-response public. The uprising is given an intriguingly discomfiting militaristic aspect—HOOAH! Army cheers in response to Coin’s speeches, for example—but the movie fumbles with its feel for crowds, visually or temperamentally, as so many futuristic predecessors have. Not that any of the young heroes beside Katniss hold much attention: Peeta continues to feel as a hollow as what he is (an industry-created pop star), making Katniss’s Civil War of My Heart between him and nice-guy Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that much less interesting. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) turns up on the side of the rebels with much comic-relief vamping, but also darws fire to much else worthy of parody in a world of bombast and misery.
And what, really, is the uprising like? If The Hunger Games imagines a wonderfully disgusting picture of a stratified country, there’s more effort expended here on hovering jets and vertiginous metal stairwells in bunkers and smoldering rubble than on giving fresh character to the undifferentiated mass of rebels and their lives. Ending with a prophetic-feeling image that has an unnerving power the rest of the film is almost unworthy of, Mockingjay – Part 1 feels more like just another serial adventure than a fully imagined reckoning of Katniss and the uprising unbound.