At long last, revolution has finally come to Panem, the ruthless, tyrannical society at the heart of The Hunger Games franchise. As it turns out, that revolution doesn’t just apply to the efforts of rebel figurehead Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her cohorts, but to the very structure and nature of the series itself. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 employs the now popular conceit of splitting the final, epic chapter of a long-running series in half, using it to craft a story of a country and its people in the throes of a violent, transformative restoration.
Moving convincingly from the sensational, action-packed previous features to something more thoughtful and politically introspective is no easy feat for a franchise aimed at the young adult science-fiction market, but Francis Lawrence largely succeeds with Mockingjay—at times, it feels like nothing more than protracted set-up, but it’s also subtly transitioning its audience for a perspective shift in the end-game, something that wasn’t expected or necessary with the bisected likes of the Harry Potter and Twilight finales.
More than ever before, Jennifer Lawrence is the key to making everything work here. Like most concluding genre series, there’s a wealth of disparate moving parts to look after in Mockingjay, but sending them into Katniss’ orbit ensures that they benefit from Lawrence’s nuanced, grounded performance that continues to be extraordinary for the way it interprets the young star’s own experiences as the media focal point of a mega-franchise and then adds the speculative elements of a futuristic rebellion.
One of the very refreshing elements of the series is that the Katniss we meet in each installment is essentially the same person externally—we haven’t watched her physically grow in the same way Radcliffe’s Potter did, and she’s had no supernatural transformation like Twilight’s Bella—but a very different one emotionally and psychologically. Now, in Mockingjay, even the world around her has started to view her through a brand new prism; the downtrodden districts have not just embraced her as a symbol, but now connect with her as an idealized personality, while the under-fire leaders in the Capitol have moved her from the distraction category to full-fledged threat.
Picking up from the literally explosive cliffhanger of the very effective Catching Fire, Mockingjay shows no hurry in getting to anywhere in particular, giving Katniss time to process the shock and horror of learning that her home district—District 12—has been bombed to cinders by the Capitol’s forces at the behest of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). These early chapters spend time letting Katniss convert to her new surroundings and mission, which includes playing poster-girl for a carefully planned rebellion that includes President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a potentially benevolent improvement over Snow, with no time to demonstrate that proposed quality because of the war time she finds herself presiding over. There’s also a world weary Plutarch Heavensbee, played to perfection by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who generates a large amount of poignancy on-screen by just being so damned good that one can’t help but lament that after this series, we’ll never see another fresh performance from him.
If Heavensbee’s transition from calculating game-master to soul-searching co-author of an uprising (not so much a transformation, but an unveiling of the true man) leaves the series lacking a primary threat, Sutherland steps up and adopts his role as the crowning villain with threatening, suave aplomb. The fact that there are no actual Hunger Games in this movie—no combat arena with a convenient set of foes and challenges—forces the audience to focus in on a larger game being played between Katniss and Snow, and Sutherland sells us a man who is completely, unquestionably right in his own mind; his evil is made more formidable because he truly believes it to be the best step forward. This kind of tyrannical pragmatism becomes a tightrope for Katniss, who finds herself trying to display compassion as example to the discontent masses looking to her for hope and leadership.
When Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch returns to the scene, he sends the story in one more spiraling direction; a documentary crew led by Natalie Dormer’s Cressida begins following Katniss around, capturing her actions and reactions to the war. In a poignant and sly scene, Cressida nabs a ground-breaking moment, when the young revolutionary returns and sees, for the first time, the ashes of her home. These elements continue to give a plausible realism to The Hunger Games universe, and underline the real-world parallels without overwhelming the fantasy. Although at first, the love triangle of the previous pictures seems forgotten, both Katniss’ childhood pal Galen (Liam Hemsworth) and her Tribute love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) factor strongly into the story here. For Hemsworth’s part, he finally gets to explore Galen as a character separate from Katniss’ perception of him. Hutcherson has marked a tangible and potent progression as an actor since the first Hunger Games film, and his work here is subtle and slowly stated.
The action may not be as plentiful or centrally focused as Catching Fire, but Francis Lawrence translates the thematic gravity to a kind of visual immediacy when it comes to the covert rescue mission in the capital or in the more frenetic war sequences. The weak spot lies again in the breaking of the story so that much of the groundwork lies in this film, and the payoff on the other side of next year. The visual tone of both earlier films had the benefit of the exotic and foreboding nature locales while Mockingjay is trapped within various dreary command centers, fortresses and rebel hideouts. Even when it’s lacking in atmosphere and texture, Mockingjay still captivates thanks to the momentum it’s constantly building. This is a film series that continues to reward its audience for coming along for the ride, and as the final road comes to a close, The Hunger Games looks set to send its viewers home well satiated.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is now in wide release.