By the final chapter of Christopher Nolan‘s trilogy “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bruce Wayne came to understand the power of the mythology of the Batman, extending beyond his actions as a masked vigilante cleaning up the streets and enduring as a symbol of justice. As long as the bat signal flashed across the nighttime skies of Gotham, citizens knew there was someone maintaining order with no allegiances except to fairness and integrity. But Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) could never have it so easy. Having survived the 74th Hunger Games, escaped the Quarter Quell as a pawn in the rebellion, and now entering “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1,” Katniss finds herself pulled between doing all she can to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) or using the currency she has as the source of the uprising’s hope to change Panem forever and serve the greater good. And the result is a sequel that dives deeper into the themes beneath the surface of this slick piece of dystopian entertainment, though fans looking for conventional thrills will likely have to keep waiting until ‘Part 2.’
Indeed, most of the movie zeroes in on what Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated) once described as “moves and countermoves.” Now safely sheltered in a secret underground bunker in District 13, where a surprisingly organized and strong resistance movement is based, Katniss comes to accept how things played out in the Quarter Quell. Her mother and sister may be safe for now, but Katniss fears any move she makes will only further endanger Peeta, who is in the clutches of the Capitol and hasn’t been made privy to the growing movement nor the fate of District 12 which has been wiped clear off the map, leaving few survivors. However President Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of the rebel forces, knows that the window of opportunity to seize the discontent in all the Districts, unite it in a singular voice and rise up against those in power, is closing fast. She needs Katniss, and in turn Katniss realizes she’s in a place to make some demands: she agrees to be the Mockingjay that Coin needs, and in return she wants all the Victors rescued and given immunity. And so kicks off ‘Mockingjay,’ a much more grim and mature film that its predecessors, which makes no distinction between the manipulations on either side in the fight for the fate of Panem.
It was a wise move for the filmmakers to recruit Danny Strong to contribute to the screenplay for ‘Mockingjay’ —he shares those duties with Peter Craig, also new to the franchise. The former has the political HBO movies “Recount” and “Game Change” (which also starred Moore) under his belt, and his imprint is felt on the machinations and maneuvers between all the factions, and it’s not only believable but riveting. While ‘Mockingjay’ —especially when split into two movies— could easily fall prey to endless exposition, Strong and Craig keep the dialogue mostly concise and brisk. And aside from one embarrassing and unnecessary false alarm sequence (which I won’t spoil here), there is little filler in the movie, which runs a good twenty minutes or so shorter than the bloated ‘Catching Fire.’ Strong and Craig cleave the film at the right moment and build to a pretty terrific finale that crosscuts at one point between a couple different locations and is no less thrilling for it. It’s even more admirable considering that Katniss herself is not directly involved, though it’s her emotional state that forms the tension of the sequence. It’s rare to see any blockbuster in any genre make decisions informed and driven by character, rather than by the more superficial requirements of blockbuster entertainment, but the rewards in that regard are plentiful in ‘Mockingjay.’
But that’s not to say the serious treatment always works. At its core, the premise of “The Hunger Games” remains a bit silly (dystopian societies always seem to have overly elaborate schemes to keep the populace in check), and in the previous entries where moments of lightheartedness kept the tone at a balance, here that touch is missing. And it’s a feeling exacerbated by clunky, embarrassingly on-the-nose dialogue (“Everything old can be made new again…like democracy”) and lazy imagery (hooded rebels that casually evoke prisoners in Abu Gharaib or Guantanamo Bay without making much of a statement). Meanwhile, characters like Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), usually relied upon to casually lift the franchise’s spirit when needed, are mostly sidelined, and even Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) loses some of the shine of his sweet adorkableness to basically become the ‘Mockingjay’ equivalent of Q from the Bond series. I’ll be looking forward to the spark of Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) when she returns in full force in ‘Part 2,’ because she’s reduced here to one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. Also mostly gone is the sense of spontaneity, as Katniss and those in Capitol continually tried to outsmart each other in a constant struggle for popular opinion and power. ‘Mockingjay’ has a more singular narrative, understandably so given how things have changed, but it amounts to a focus that allows little room for very scripted but very real feeling improvisation on behalf of the characters.
But that might be putting too much pressure on a movie that more than ever is Katniss’ story. Even with the addition of new faces such an excellent Natalie Dormer as Cressida, Katniss is even more central to the proceedings. And while this means that Liam Hemsworth (as Gale) continues to be sucked into nothingness just by being merely in the presence of a superior actress, it’s becoming increasingly certain none of these movies would work without Lawrence. The Oscar winner effortlessly carries the weight of ‘Mockingjay,’ functioning as its action hero and emotional throughline, and navigating both responsibilities with a complexity of character that massive tentpoles don’t usually have. ‘Mockingjay’ finds our hero continually horrified by the depths of President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) brutal actions to retain control and keep the populace of Panem oppressed. And Lawrence rides the constantly swirling tides of fear, anger, hope and dismay with the skills she’s displayed with equal effectiveness in her award winning movies. Lawrence is a gift to this franchise, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else connecting with the material and audience in quite the way she has. And it’s what makes this ride to the finale so satisfying.
Well, perhaps not fully. For all that ‘Mockingjay’ gets right, when the credits roll, you’re still only halfway through the story, and the two hours or so feel more like a chapter than a complete whole. ‘Catching Fire,’ even with its open ending, still had a sense of finality of it and of a battle won with a war still to come. And while director Francis Lawrence aims for a similar feeling here (right down to a very similar closing shot), he doesn’t quite pull it off, as we exit the story with many big plot threads still left to be resolved. So we’ll wait to see what tomorrow holds for Panem, and if Katniss can ever return to being a person, rather than an ideal. But with ‘Part 1,’ the filmmakers have made it very easy to anticipate returning for ‘Part 2’ next year. [B]