By: Bryan Montgomery
Rating: 8 out of 10
Last year, I gave The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a 9 out of 10. It was a complete resurgence of the franchise after I was afraid it was going to suffer the destabilization of a lackluster first installment, but was pleasantly surprised to see director Francis Lawrence turn the entire saga on its head. What resulted was a hard-hitting, emotional story of survival. That now has shifted to the political and dangerous game of rebellion in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, the penultimate entry in the franchise that is forced to rely on its characters in replace of action, which both works and fails to varying degrees.
Still emotionally despondent after the conclusion of the Third Quarter Quell, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has gained refuge from the Capital in District 13, the long-forgotten district led by President Coin (Julianne Moore). Both Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Phillip-Seymour Hoffman, attempt to convince Katniss to become the face of the rebellion, but Katniss is frequently conflicted by her concern for Peeta (Josh Hutchinson), who is in the clutches of the Capital.
The first piece of Mockingjay: Part I that will likely surprise fans is the immense, dark tone the film takes from the offset. Luckily enough, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson return as the film’s comic relief, but this movie is Empire Strikes Back level dark; the movie takes the harrowing plunge to show burnt corpses at District 12 early in the film to set the tone. What might be more harrowing is the immense success prevalent throughout; as someone who has yet to read the final installment of The Hunger Games series (I’m cracking it open the second I file this story), the suspense in the film was insane. Especially in the third act, a covert operation deep within the heart of the Capital, you are on the edge of your seat to see how everything shakes out.
As has been the case since the beginning of the franchise, the entire film relies on the performance of Lawrence, and once again, she does not disappoint. It can be expected for the final installment of the series to focus on the large-scale implications of the rebellion, but for now, the first part of Mockingjay focuses solely on Katniss, her decisions, and the ramifications of those choices.
The complex made clear by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) of moves and countermoves is a theme present throughout, as every act of heroism by Katniss is answered by a deadly act by the Capital, with the two sides trading proverbial punches throughout. It’s entertaining to see where it goes, and although this is easily the installment of the series that presents the least amount of action, the political chess game between the Capital and rebellion is enough to keep audiences riveted.
Moore leads the supporting cast as President Coin, capturing the character’s malice and snakelike mannerisms to a highly successful degree. Who also emerges in an incredible way is Seymour-Hoffman, who is dearly missed for obvious reasons with his great turn as Heavensbee. In Catching Fire we were forced to see a muffled version of the character, but in Mockingjay, Heavensbee is allowed to break free and show off what he does best; becoming a key component of the film in his ability to make Katniss the political figure she is destined to be.
Adding a new dimension to the film is Hutchinson, who takes a step away from being the loving individual we have come to expect to become the Mockingjay of the Capital, attempting to dissuade the Capital from their endeavors. It is a bold turn for the actor, who encapsulates Peeta’s suffering to a key. The little twist near the end of the film comes out of absolutely nowhere, and sets plays in motion as the film barrels towards its epic finale.
At the expense of all of the acting is the action in the film. There are only a few major action beats in Mockingjay. Although they are impressive, they are few and far between, as people who are going to the film in hopes of seeing a direct, action-packed sequel to Catching Fire will end up disappointed by the lack of explosions and excitement. This is much more of a political thriller than anything else, as Mockingjay brings the battle to the Capital through words instead of arrows during the penultimate episode.
Mockingjay is a worthy entry into The Hunger Games franchise. It fails to surpass the excellence of Catching Fire, but it does the job of setting up the final entry into the series with a strong, political story surrounding Katniss Everdeen, the sometimes reluctant hero, and her battle with the Capital. It will be exciting to see where Lawrence takes us as The Hunger Games goes barreling towards its bloody, captivating finale, as Mockingjay: Part I is a great start, falling short of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I in an exercise of kicking off a two-part finale.