Turning a trilogy into a tetralogy is risky. On the plus side, the film maker has a good four-plus hours to adapt a book, rather than 2-2 ½ hours, but it runs the risk of coming across as a spare tire on a tricycle – its only use is to try to keep it going when things go flat. After the stellar The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which improved on the original Hunger Games, Mockingjay Part 1 had to keep fans hooked until Part 2’s release next year.
The book already has the weakness of being The Hunger Games without any games. A critique of the book when it came out was that, after the inventiveness of the first two volumes, the third came across as a straightforward dash to the finish line. Stretching the book to two movies seemed motivated solely by the box office. “Mockingjay” is half the length of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” another final entry in a series that was split in two, and even with the greater source material the first part of Deathly Hallows dragged. The good news is that, even though it’s a letdown from Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) have managed to make a decently exciting film. It doesn’t suck like it could have, especially when you think about Spider-Man 3 or X Men: The Last Stand (and I apologize for making you think of those two turkeys, but they do illustrate how Hollywood can suck at the level of an industrial-strength vacuum when it comes to the third entry in a series).
Mockingjay Part 1 picks up shortly after Catching Fire. After the destruction of her home district, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is taken by Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the rebel outpost in District 13. There she’s reunited with her mother and sister Prim (Willow Shields) who were led to safety by Gale when District 12 was attacked. She also meets with the rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who wants to use Katniss to counter the Capitol’s propaganda and build the revolt into a full-fledge revolution. Katniss, though, is still emotionally damaged by the Quarter Quell experience and the loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
Things change when Peeta shows up on the Capitol TV broadcasts being interviewed by Caesar (Stanley Tucci). Katniss agrees to do counter-programing, but she comes across as wooden thanks to the leaden script she’s given to perform against a special effects background. Thankfully a now clean and sober Hamish (Woody Harrelson) shows up to save Katniss from the debacle. He points out that when Katniss has inspired people, it has been with her honest reactions to what’s happening around her. So Hamish and Katniss head off into the fight, accompanied by a film crew under the direction of Cressida (Natalie Dormer).
By now the main characters are well established, so seeing them on screen again is like meeting old friends. Jeffrey Wright returns as tech genius Beetee, and Sam Claflin’s Finnick is there, though several scenes are stolen by Elizabeth Banks, whose Effie Trinket looks upon her exile among the jump-suited, wig-less rebels as her being condemned to Hell. Donald Sutherland once again is awesomely villainous as President Snow, and the movie does manage to get a face-off between Katniss and Snow, even if it is a televised one.
But that actually fits with the film and its focus on how media can be used to manipulate the masses, both by those in power and those wanting to break free of that subjugation. Mockingjay Part 1 manages a final twist that changes the dynamic of the story and will make fans wait anxiously for Part 2’s release the weekend before Thanksgiving next year. In the end that was its purpose, so mission accomplished.