The final two Harry Potter movies were something of a revolution in Hollywood. “Hey!” the studio executives said, “It seems as though we can now make two $400 million plus checks as we end our series, from now on, we split every big event in two!” It’s a trend that dosen’t seem to be loosing steam any time soon, and as such, ‘The Hunger Games’, arguably the most popular current non-superhero franchise is going for it for it’s finale. Fortunately, this is a series that seems intent on quality, the second film ‘Catching Fire’ in particular being one of the smartest and most exciting blockbusters in recent years, and with director Francis Lawrence returning to the helm for this one, I was confident that we had nowhere to go but up.
The story picks up shorty after Catching Fire ended. After surviving the quarter quell, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has discovered that her home district was savagely destroyed by the capital in response to her act of defiance in the games. She has been taken to the underground bunker of District 13, a place long thought destroyed in the previous war with the capital and finds herself with a great deal of responsibility on her shoulders at once. President Coin (Julianne Moore), and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the two leaders of district thirteen, want her to become a propaganda symbol in the growing uprising within the districts, enlisting her to shoot documentaries and rally videos with the help of famed director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and her crew. Meanwhile, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has been captured by the Capital, and has seemingly changed sides by force, urging Katniss to stop what she’s doing over the airwaves, while Gale (Liam Hemsworth) comes into greater focus as he aids Katniss on her missions.
Let’s start by answering the big question, “was this story worth the split?” While I get the impression that some people might not feel the same way, I would have to say that the answer for me is a resounding yes. While not the most explosively action packed installment of the series, this is a confident, engrossing, and bleak set-up for things to come, while still remaining engaging as a profoundly different film than the previous two. This is no longer a story simply about the inner workings of an oppressive government, but the beginning of an epic and rousing war tale rife with propaganda, constantly shifting loyalties, and emotional turmoil, and because of the split, we get to revel in each of the dominos that are about to fall.
The whole rhythm of things here feels utterly fresh and different than before. Since we’re not getting our massive action climax this time, the film puts a great deal of focus on the political game of cat and mouse between District 13, and the Capital. This leads into a very refreshing, and fascinating to watch political satire, with both sides launching both physical, and mental attacks against each other, hoping to break the will of their opponent. Make no mistake, Katniss is still at the center here, struggling between being this symbol for rousing hope, while still being deeply broken and battered from her own trauma is endlessly interesting, and is what keeps the political angle of things from feeling like it’s just bogging things down.
The performances are as strong as ever. Jennifer Lawrence, emotive and fierce, anchors everything wonderfully. She gets so many different emotional angles to play with here, and for the most part, we’re with her every step of the way. She does have a tendency to over-act from time to time, loosing some of the subtlety that she brought before, but it’s still a great performances. Hemsworth, who is finally given some significant screen time here, really comes into his own as the task oriented and passionate Gale, while Josh Hutcherson, even with fairly limited screen time, gives what is by far his most expressive and heartbreaking turn in this series so far. The supporting cast is also really solid, with Julianne Moore, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and more all impressing.
There is also a fair amount of action here, and what is there is really solid. Lawrence gives us genuine sense of danger here, not flinching at the graphic consequences and huge destruction caused by the violence, with one sequence towards the midpoint in particular being both deeply sad, and very exciting, as Katniss and Gale fend off Capital ships headed for a hospital. Hell, there’s even a heavily suspenseful sequence towards the end that feels straight out of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. He does start to shift back into some of goofy shaky cam that the first film used, but it’s not nearly as bad.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is perhaps the darkest, most mature entry in the series so far, with complex characters and powerful narrative running through it. It may not be as exciting as ‘Catching Fire’, which is still the series’ champion thus far, but perhaps when the second part comes out that will change. It certainly stumbles from time to time, with some emotional moments feeling a little forced, particularly involving the love triangle, but it’s nothing too distracting. It may not satisfy everyone, particularly those looking for an action film, but those open to something a little different should enjoy it very much.