“Everything old can be made new again,” says tribute escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) in “The Hunger Games: MockingJay – Part 1,” “even democracy.” So, apparently, is the “Harry Potter” model of cleaving the final book in a popular series into two moneymaking movies.
A better, catchier title for the third part of the Hunger Games tetralogy might be “You Say You Want a Revolution.” “MockingJay – Part 1” takes the action off the playing field and into the realm of rebellion.
With one arrow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) changed the barbaric Hunger Games forever, opening the door to rebellion. In the surrounding turmoil, her love Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), was left behind in the Capitol and has become a pawn in the propaganda game being played by the totalitarian President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and District 13 rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). The revolution to unify the districts against the capitol has begun with Katniss cast as the MockingJay, a reluctant hero but a symbol of hope to the oppressed masses.
“The Hunger Games: MockingJay – Part 1” ups the stakes considerably from the last film, putting several big ideas into motion. The cinematic world created in the first two movies is about to change in very dramatic ways and this movie prepares viewers for the revolution. Katniss looks suitably concerned throughout and there are several effectively staged action scenes, but despite the fine performances and lessons in mass produced anarchy, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a place holder for next year’s series finale.
Scenes stating the obvious—“He’s punishing me because I’m the MockingJay!” Katniss reveals in one, “Duh, yeah” scene—feel added in to stretch the movie to its two hour running time.
That’s not to say there isn’t entertainment value here. Far from it. Lawrence takes a role that could have been buried under layers of teen ennui or steely-eyed determination and gives Katniss some real depth and it is a blast to see Moore and Seymour-Hoffman back on screen together again. Sutherland is at his serpentine best and Harrelson and Banks struggle with their new surroundings in entertaining ways; he with sobriety, her with a lack of haute couture.
Most entertaining is the film’s take on the building of a social movement. Katniss is manufactured into the people’s hero. She’s given line readings and a fan to blow her hair around in sexy and stirring propaganda videos and dressed in stylish warrior gear. “Everyone is going to want to kiss you, be you or kill you,” coos Trinket. It’s a handbook to do-it-yourself social unrest and it is smart, funny and on the nose. In the end, however, it’s discovered that Katniss is more effective in her natural state, without meddling hands shaping her. One can’t help but think the same of the movie. Perhaps it might have been satisfying if it too had been left alone and presented in its natural state, as one movie instead of two.