Silver Screen: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I ***
Blame Harry Potter.
The movie adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s mega-bestselling series were so slavishly devoted to their source material that the only way to cover all 750-plus pages of the final installment was to divide the action into two movies. The result was an undeniably faithful retelling, and also one of the single most boring blockbuster movies of all time leading up to the satisfying conclusion. The Twilight series followed suit by bifurcating its final chapter, which worked relatively well considering that after two movies of almost no action or forward momentum Breaking Dawn was overstuffed with hothouse absurdity.
The decision to split the last installment of the Hunger Games trilogy into two movies appears to have been driven entirely by the bottom line. Fans are definitely being milked, possibly bilked, by this flagrantly wayward bit of time-killing, which is never able to justify its existence as a standalone movie. In fact, it’s barely a movie; Mockingjay Part I plays more like one girl’s heroic quest to film the DVD extras for Mockingjay Part II.
Having twice survived the Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has escaped the clutches of the Capitol and found refuge in the hidden underground base of District Thirteen. The resistance fighters in Thirteen, presumed dead for many years, have spent that time training their forces and gathering weaponry to mount a full-scale revolt. Rebel leader President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) has conspired with Hunger Games architect Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a slew of Capitol separatists, and now she has Katniss, the face of the revolution.
Almost the entirety of Mockingjay’s two-hour running time is concerned with Katniss filming a series of propaganda videos to inspire revolt among the other districts. It’s something like an activist take on My Fair Lady, in which the reluctant heroine must be trained to walk and talk (and sing) like a proper revolutionary. Her education requires a lot of tangential floundering, including not one but two separate trips to bombed-out districts where we learn that the tyrannical forces of the Capitol sure are real mean. You know, in case that wasn’t already clear when they pitted innocent children against one another in a televised battle to the death.
The screenplay, from talented writers Danny Strong (Recount, The Butler) and Peter Craig (The Town), attempts to fill the time with some quasi-philosophical pontificating about the nature of propaganda and the personal cost of being remade as an icon. It’s full of cutesy meta-references to Lawrence’s own transformation into a superstar and the marketing of the films themselves, complete with one agitprop spot that uses the series’ actual logo and title cards to present what’s essentially a teaser trailer for the very movie we’re watching. It’s clever but not terribly substantial and totally saps the story’s momentum.
What’s most frustrating about Mockingjay Part I is how clearly it could have been condensed into forty-five minutes. The final moments take a surprising turn that regain a sense of urgency. Both previous Hunger Games movies were slow starters; a more judiciously paced version of this same material would have made for a fast-paced, truly compelling first act. Instead it’s a $10, two-hour tax of your time and patience, the cinematic equivalent of a toll booth you must pass through to get to your journey’s end.
That’s not to say the footage that exists here is bad so much as it is superfluous. Director Francis Lawrence— no relation to Jennifer— does an excellent job of rooting author Suzanne Collins’s occasionally outlandish story in real human emotions. His handsome aesthetic locates an elusive middle ground between the books’ sometimes dissonant mashup of a grim tone and sci-fi silliness. His work is a steep improvement over the bloodless, too-clean, candy-colored original from director Gary Ross. Lawrence is the man for the job, and if The Hunger Games had been adapted as a longer-form TV series rather than a handful of movies, this digression into politics and the machinations of propaganda could have been an interesting aside.
Now a superstar, Jennifer Lawrence can no longer qualify as the movies’ secret weapon, but she remains their greatest asset. It’s as raw and soulful a performance as you’re likely to find in what is essentially a cartoon for slightly older kids. It’s so easy for even a good actor to get lost in the machinations of a big-budget, effects-heavy franchise— just ask Divergent star Shailene Woodley— but Lawrence grounds the film and never lets the human element become overwhelmed. She’s a gem. Now let’s get this last movie out of the way so she can go on to something else, ideally an internally coherent movie with its own beginning, middle, and end.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.