The good news is that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 is better than its predecessors. (In fact, this is really more of a three-and-three-quarter star review.) The bad news is that it would, I feel certain, be all but incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t seen those films. Stand alone, it will not. This one just drops the viewer into the story with the assumption that the story and setup are already known. That’s not unreasonable, since it is unlikely that anyone who is interested in seeing Mockingjay — Part 1 isn’t familiar with the story. I don’t know that this qualifies as bad news, but it is hard to get around the feeling that splitting the third book into two films is a shameless Harry Potter-inspired cash grab. That said, I can’t subscribe to the view that this is nothing more than a two-hour trailer for Part 2. No, this is a well-crafted film in its own right and is intelligently divided at a key moment that works better than it has any right to.
The biggest improvement this round is that it doesn’t drag in yet another Hunger Games Tournament. The insistence on doing that — presumably dictated by the book — is what hobbled last year’s Catching Fire. After two-thirds of that entry had traded in expanding both the themes and stakes of the story, it turned into a wash-rinse-repeat of the first movie. This makes no such blunder but sticks to the continued development of the darker elements of the tale. Oh, I don’t say that it breaks new ground in terms of dark satire. It hardly does that. It in fact becomes the very propaganda that the two sides in the film are creating. (Come on, bombing a hospital is right out of the WWII propaganda movie playbook.) But it does it well and with conviction — and effectiveness. And it’s not in the least afraid to go into some very dark corners, notably in the scene where Finnick (Sam Claflin) rattles off a laundry list of President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) crimes and general perfidy. Since we are, after all, in PG-13 Land, these are only spoken of — and they’re almost background — but I’m not at all certain this doesn’t enhance the impact by leaving it to our imaginations with tantalizing gaps for us to fill in.
Also in the film’s favor is that it — by necessity — sidelines Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), giving Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) room to grow as a character. My central problem with the Katniss character became obvious to me in Catching Fire — that she’s just plain not likable, and that, as Hamish (Woody Harrelson) told her in that entry, she’s not worthy of Peeta’s love. Mockingjay goes a long way toward fixing that — at least to the extent of deepening the character. What the film — the series as whole — cannot really do is keep it from being pretty apparent that Lawrence has outgrown the role as an actress, but that’s really nobody’s fault. Plus, there’s no doubt that Lawrence is giving it her best shot.
The story here centers on fostering the revolt of the outlying districts against the tyranny of Panem. What makes this more interesting than it might be is that the film is less about the usual freedom-fighter schtick than it is about the leaders of the warring factions — President Coin (Julianne Moore) and President Snow — waging a propaganda war, using Katniss to represent the rebels and Peeta to do the same for the powers that be. This not only offers interesting scope for political commentary (something that has become more pronounced as the series has progressed), but creates personal tension between the two characters. That it leads to a significant cliffhanger ending makes it all the more effective — effective enough that for the first time I’m actually interested to see the final entry. (As a side note, there’s another open-ended aspect to the film in that it does not address the issue of how Philip Seymour Hoffman’s — to whom this film is dedicated — death during production will be dealt with in the final entry.) Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material.