The third movie in the Hunger Games series is supposed to be the one where the frame pulls back and reveals a bigger world than the teen arena of the first two. Instead, Mockingjay Part 1 does something more daring: it shows how all of the dystopian land of Panem is just the Arena writ large. Minor spoilers ahead...
(And by minor spoilers, I mean that the movie's trailer will probably be a better source of plot information than this review.)
Mockingjay Part 1 adapts the first half of the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy, which takes place in a dystopian future America where kids are forced to take part in huge gladitorial games. In the book, without giving too much away, Katniss is finally free of the Games, but her fame has turned her into a valuable propaganda tool. She gets drawn into a web of politics, and has to step up and embrace her role as the Mockingjay at last. And things get very, very ugly.
Because this film is just the first half, it's mostly the part where Katniss is grappling with her role and who she wants to be. And a hefty dose of the "things get ugly" part.
Some people consider Mockingjay the weakest of the three novels. Others love its daring and its willingness to throw most of what people loved in the first two books out the window. Plus the way it ties off the themes of the series. It's sort of the Dark Knight Rises of Hunger Games novels.
But the surprising thing about Mockingjay Part 1, as a film, is how clear an arc it draws for Katniss, in particular, in just this one film. But also, how it goes out of its way to show that the Arena where Katniss fought and killed wasn't just a sideshow or a bloody piece of pageantry put on by the Capitol — it was the heart of this whole bloody mess, and the main form of cultural interchange between the rulers and the ruled. The Hunger Games was the only time the Capitol and the Districts really communicated. And thus, it turns out that everything else in Panem is best viewed through the lens of the Games.
In fact, the first half of Mockingjay on film does a better job at the task that the novel seemed to struggle with — making this radically different chapter feel of a piece with the earlier parts. There are unexpected references back to the Games as a defining cultural symbol for everybody, not just the Tributes. Politics in Panem, in general, turn out to be a reflection of these bizarre annual deathmatches.
Just like when she was competing in the Arena, Katniss has allies, but they're not entirely trustworthy. Even when the Districts aren't sending their children to be killed by the Capitol, they're sending Tributes of another kind, in the form of raw materials, something we see a lot of this time. The impossible choices, between survival and defiance, keep coming. The farther Katniss gets away from the Arena, the more everything looks like the Arena.
Director Francis Lawrence plays this up, alternating between two very different styles of camerawork — a static frame that intercuts between people's faces and their POVs on one hand, and a handheld "wartime footage" look on the other. The contrast between these two wildly different styles of film-making drives the movie and gives it energy, and recalls the inside the Arena/outside the Arena contrast in the first two movies.
This isn't just the most explicitly political of the Hunger Games movies — it's also the one that makes the political framework behind these bizarre teen death matches seem more sturdy and less like a painted backdrop. There's a lot of hard work that goes into making Panem feel like a plausible nation this time around, and it retroactively strengthens the scaffolding of the first two movies.
Most of all, we're reminded that this is a post-apocalyptic world, where the population may have dipped below replacement numbers, and the human race may not survive unless everybody sticks together. (At times, the most political scenes in this film remind me of Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer — except that the train is a long straight line, while Panem is shaped like a wheel, with the Capitol as the hub, which changes the shape of the film.)
Katniss Everdeen is one of the most fascinating heroes of our time
Jennifer Lawrence pretty much carries this movie, even more than the first two. She takes a character who has a lot of internal monologue in the books, which you would think would be impossible to convey on screen, and manages to create something even more layered and complicated.
From the first scene, which puts you up close with a Katniss who's basically a trainwreck, Mockingjay Part 1 builds an arc for Katniss that shows her coming to terms with her power without ever becoming bulletproof. Jennifer Lawrence's performance is full of vulnerability and barely-suppressed trauma, as well as huge bravery. And we see her calculating and figuring the angles, in a way that the impulsive bow-slinger never did in the first movie.
Just like this movie keeps everything connected to the Games as it pulls back the frame and gets bigger, it also keeps everything deeply personal. Katniss' game is still all about protecting a handful of people in her life, including her family and the two points of her love triangle, Gale and Peeta. And the cat, Buttercup, who gets a lot of this movie's best moments.
Instead of a fish-out-of-water storyline in the Capitol and the Arena, this movie places Katniss in a weird industrial/institutional setting, full of concrete walls — broken up only by the occasional visit to some rubble and the scene of some recent carnage.
The endless tight closeups on Katniss' face, as she wrestles with her emotions, keep the movie emotionally anchored in her — but meanwhile, the film is preoccupied with Katniss as symbol. A lot of the most complicated sequences in this film involve juxtaposition, with the audio track of Katniss talking or singing while people are fighting or struggling. Katniss' singing-as-earworm becomes one of her main superpowers in this film, and there's one bravura sequence that's basically an extended musical segue.
The focus on Katniss as damaged hero, and as idealized symbol, mostly works incredibly well and forms a compelling arc for this movie. Except for one or two moments that are not in the book, and which seem so ill-conceived that they threaten to undermine everything else that happens. One moment, in particular, seems to be created due to the need to add some extra drama to what is essentially the first half of a finale, but it feels like a mistake.
But in general, Mockingjay Part 1 stands on its own, better than I'd expected, and it confirms what the first two movies already told us: that this series has taken what could have been a teen-exploitation premise and turned it into one of the most potent, and complicated, political narratives of our time.