From the Hollywood adaptation trend that brought you all the Part Ones of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Hobbit, and Twilight, it’s split-sequel time once again with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One. Its lean running time of 123 minutes, which includes roughly 15-60 minutes of visual-effects end credits, would suggest the complete finale to Suzanne Collins’ world-famous trilogy could’ve been translated into a single, epic-length film if dozens of pages’ worth of thinking, feeling moments had been deleted from the screenplay. Sure, why not whittle it all down to a more economical 154 minutes, the average run time of Michael Bay’s four Transformers movies? Less talk, more rock!
Meanwhile, the two-hour Fargo is adapted into a ten-episode TV season, and no one reacts with a facepalm. Critics find it in their heart to forgive and bestow glowing approval upon it.
Making extra movies doesn’t have to be a sin in and of itself. The question is, can they make the extra space worth our time and money? Or would you like to be the fussy producer who tells director Francis Lawrence, “I’m sorry, but we only want one film, so you’ll need to give us less Phillip Seymour Hoffman”?
Short version for the unfamiliar: The Hunger Games are finished! At the end of Catching Fire, the Rebel Alliance of the District 13 underground rescued hero archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and fellow competitor Finnick Adair (Pirates 4‘s Sam Claflin) from the disrupted chaos of the 75th anniversary Battle Royale. Unfortunately the extraction team left behind a few other key good guys, including Katniss’ two-time field partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who’s now been turned into the Capitol’s brainwashed answer to Tokyo Rose. The adults in charge of District 13 would love to help him out, but they have their country’s reunification to plan, a PR campaign to arrange, a government to overthrow, and Donald Sutherland to blame for it. Frankly, they’re swamped.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Everyone who survived Catching Fire is back, but adjusting to radical changes. Li’l sister Prim is throwing herself into de facto on-the-job medical training. Best friend Liam Hemsworth has triple the screen time that he was given in the first two films combined. Useless ol’ Moms Everdeen is fifteen seconds away from existing only as a deleted scene. Haymitch is sober and hating it. Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee has been promoted to Senior Hacker. Fellow fugitive Effie Trinket tries to accentuate the positive despite the tragic loss of all her dresses, hats, wigs, makeup, job, and social significance. On the other hand, Caesar Flickerman will never, ever change.
Two major new faces join the ranks. Game of Thrones‘ Natalie Dormer is Cressida, the director running the film crew that means to turn Katniss into the face of the revolution. With one side of her head shaven and tattooed with a network of vines running down to her arm, Cressida’s greenpunk look makes a much bolder statement than Katniss’ X-Men costume.
Presiding over District 13’s proposed new order is Julianne Moore as Alma Coin, hardened from having to make too many unpopular choices, caring more about the Greater Good than about her public speaking deficiencies. After a while you can tell she’s picking up pointers from Hoffman’s charismatic Plutarch Heavensbee, and when her constituency’s reactions turn from boos to huzzahs, you have to wonder if she’ll also be in danger someday of picking up power-madness pointers from Sutherland’s merciless President Snow.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Any Hunger Games fans who were looking forward to more teen-vs.-teen death-matches should go ahead and prepare their thumbs-down review in advance. In Mockingjay I nearly all the explosions are offscreen except for one imbalanced face-off between archers and flying bombers. When Snow responds to rebel defiance with an executive order for mass murder, Our Heroes go into action with their new toys designed by Beetee — for Gale, a swell crossbow; for Katniss, Green Arrow exploding arrows. The action is dynamic yet minimal, not unlike the second and third Bourne films in that sense.
The primary narrative here is the road to war. While Snow and his faceless military march through their standard evil-movie-army routines, the real story is in watching District 13’s buildup into a bona fide force-to-be-reckoned-with. In some ways it’s interesting to see how much they can accomplish with so few resources. In deeper, more sinister ways, we’re seeing them co-opt enemy techniques. Just as the Capitol elevated its Hunger Games victors onto sports-legend pedestals, and just as Flickerman props up a mind-warped Peeta as a faux voice of reason on Capitol TV, so do Coin and Heavensbee scheme to wage war over the airwaves using Katniss as the people’s hero, their wartime savior and their celebrity endorsement all in one. They need all the oppressed peoples of PanEm, from District Black to District Lumberjack to District Scorched Earth, united as one against the Capitol or else history repeats itself, morality loses, and Snow gets to do his told-you-so tap dance on a field of fresh skulls. And they need Katniss on board even if she doesn’t want the job.
Katniss tries on the rah-rah jingoist mantle for a while despite her obvious PTSD, but war isn’t her business. She just wants evil to go away and leave everyone alone. Problem is, it won’t disappear on its own. Ever. And she grows to resent the fact that the only working solution is to let herself be used by Coin and company like a valuable tool.
Her overriding concern above all: rescuing Peeta from Snow’s clutches. Strangely, the Everdeens’ cat Buttercup is used not once but twice to symbolize her thoughts on Peeta’s plight: once when Prim deems its life worth saving even though it means nearly losing her own; and again when Katniss taunts it with a flashlight in the dark for predictable amusement, till she spots the S.A.T. analogy of cat:Katniss::Peeta:Snow.
The moral of the story, probably among many others: War Is Hell, and sometimes both sides turn to the Dark Side to win it.
Nitpicking? The movie’s weakest points come at the beginning and near the end, and both involve Katniss shutting out any and all concerns other than PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! PEETA! Okay, we get it, she now realizes she Loves-Him loves him, and they’ve been destined soulmates all this time, but for those of us who aren’t madly in love with Peeta, her single-minded outbursts are grating.
It’s been a few years since I read the books, but two key aspects are downplayed here, despite the dual-movie expansion advantage:
1. Finnick’s dark revelation that Hunger Games victors aren’t given control of their lives. Quite the opposite: the Capitol treats them as chattel, even using and loaning them out as sex slaves. This alarming underside of an already disturbing culture is wasted as virtual set dressing for a third-act scene in which Finnick has to serve as an enthralling distraction. This major reveal should be horrifying to PanEm and audience alike, but it’s edited and slotted into wafer-thin intervals that render it disjointed and powerless.
2. In the book, President Coin rules District 13 with a strict hand not because she’s power-hungry (not at first, anyway), but because their severe resource deficit requires calculated micromanagement to ensure citizens and refugees alike can at least subsist, though actual thriving is a forbidden luxury. In the movie, we hear a couple of oblique hints to their scarcity issues (oxygen nearly becomes a problem, until it totally doesn’t), but they’re never brought to the forefront. Mostly District 13 comes off as crowded, windowless, and sheepish.
So did I like it or not? We’re used to movies being a complete entertainment unit with a beginning, a middle, and an end, frequently punctuated with stunts and crashes. Mockingjay I isn’t a complete story unto itself — it begins almost immediately from the end of Catching Fire with minimal recapping, and ends not in the middle of an action scene or on a particularly emphatic line, but with a somewhat cerebral cliffhanger that leaves the audience asking, “How will they fix this?”
The screenplay, cowritten by Emmy Award Winner Danny Strong (Game Change, The Butler), ignores structure traditions and instead provides copious opportunities for the actors to bounce off each other, to duel and to plumb the character depths further. Katniss and Gale explore their longtime friendship that keeps turning more awkward every time Peeta’s under discussion. Katniss and Coin butt heads over the needs of the many versus the needs of the one. Katniss and Finnick bond as victors tragically separated from their loved ones. And anyone blessed enough to share a scene with the late Hoffman escalates into eminent, engaging thoughtfulness.
All of this is basically the material that’s usually deleted first from your $200 million tentpole events. Expanding from one movie to two has allowed Mockingjay to accomplish the rare feat of keeping more good parts that the readers liked (amplified by strong performances that add new dimensions to the text) rather than slimming it down to appease the movies-only masses who have no use for the little details. This comprehensive design means Mockingjay Part One fails as a standalone product, but it’s not meant to be. It’s all the connective tissue that allows us to transition from the original darkest-timeline reality-TV premise to a more ambitious analysis of the tragic costs of both war and peace. If it feels vaguely incomplete now, imagine it slotted into a future Hunger Games four-film binge-watching weekend, where its components should work better within the context of the full eight-hour drama, building momentum for the series finale.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One end credits, but it’s just the previously released motion poster teaser trailer, except on a much larger screen and without the logo and indicia cluttering it.