I haven’t read “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” — I made it through the first two novels and then got sidetracked — but I have it on good authority that the new movie “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” covers only about 30 to 40 percent of the book. This is like stopping “Gone With the Wind” before Scarlett clutches the turnip and vows to never go hungry again, or halting “The Wizard of Oz” after the Tin Man and before the Cowardly Lion. It’s a cheat, a cash grab, and it makes for 125 dystopian minutes of set-up with no resolution. But come back next November, folks, and we’ll show you the rest! They should have called it “Mockingjay, Part 1 — The Shakedown.” Or “The Hunger Games 3: Rubble Without a Cause.”
This half-installment dispenses with the sadistic but dramatic killing competitions that gave Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels their name and reason for being. Without that arresting gimmick, the project deflates with a hiss. “Mockingjay — Part 1” follows reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she quite literally heads underground to join the resistance to the fascist rule of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Most of the scenes take place 40 stories below the wreckage of District 13, among the revolutionaries led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) with an assist by the sly brains of the outfit, Plutarch Heavensbee, who’s played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final role.
When “Mockingjay” does emerge above ground, it’s to allow Katniss to tour the ruins of the districts hit hardest by Snow’s assault waves, including her homeland of District 12. This leads to images reminiscent of post-WWII Germany: bombed-out buildings, corpses lined up in rows, and a town square carpeted in skeletons. It’s not a movie for the little ones.
It would be nice to report that these heavy underpinnings impart dramatic weight to the movie. Certainly last year’s far superior “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” — directed, as is this film, by Francis Lawrence — managed to convey an urgent sense of oppression and festering anger that raised it above the corporate franchise norm. You could feel the jackboots in that one, whereas “Mockingjay — Part 1” mostly seems concerned with what Katniss should wear.
Maybe that’s not entirely fair. But much of the movie deals with how and when and why the brooding “girl on fire” of the first “Hunger Games” should be used for the rebels’ propaganda purposes, and, yes, there’s a makeover moment in which Katniss gets a badass black outfit courtesy of her former (currently dead) couturier Cinna. “We will make you the best-dressed rebel in history,” coos Elizabeth Banks’s Effie Trinket, who seems lost without her clown outfit.
Katniss also gets some nifty explosive arrows from her fellow rebel Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), who has been repurposed as this franchise’s tech-minded Q. And she has a little camera crew, headed by Cressida (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones,” with a sidebuzz), that follows Katniss around and tapes her raging against a background of blazing carpet-bombed structures . These segments are broadcast to the people of the districts and are countered by the government’s own propaganda interviews with the captured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the two kinda-sweethearts going head to head at one point in a verbal battle of the lovelorn icons.
“We have to have a lightning rod. She’s the face of the revolution,” says Plutarch of Katniss, and, honestly, that’s a better, weirder, richer fantasy for a girl to have than being prom queen. And there’s something to be said for a sci-fi action-fantasy epic that hangs on the conflicting emotions and resolute strengths of a young female hero (in league with a lady rebel president, no less). That concept is strong enough to overshadow the weakest aspect of “The Hunger Games” series, the torn-between-two-lovers nonsense in which Katniss can’t choose between the blond (Hutcherson) and the bland
(Liam Hemsworth as Gale).
“Mockingjay — Part 1” does get a mid-film lift when Katniss and Gale go up against Snow’s air force with a few bows and arrows; the scene is ridiculous, and it works. But the rest is a muddy, underlit slog, a movie that searches in vain for its own pulse. Lawrence seems stranded, unable to tap into the wit she has shown elsewhere or dig into the strategic thinking required by the first two films. Moore and Hoffman are absolute pros and very enjoyable, but they’re working below their skill set — it’s depressing to think this is the last work we’ll get from Hoffman other than next year’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2.” That film could still breathe life back into this storyline, but by then audiences may have tired of paying for these games on the installment plan.
Watch the trailer: