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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Or as it will always be known, when the series went from peril to overplotting…

When last we left the comely Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her Hunger Games compatriots, a rebel plot had been hatched. With game designer insider turned co-conspirator Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) providing the plan, and District 13 and their leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) providing the firepower, our heroine was/is rescued and relocated to a secret underground military compound. There, she reteams with her sister Prim (Willow Shields), her hunky friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and now-sober mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).

After much soul searching, Katniss agrees to become the face of the revolution, the propaganda symbol known as the “Mockingjay.” In turn, the evil, despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) uses captured prisoner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as a pressuring PR response, urging our heroine to give up the fight against the Capital. As the various Districts begin to unite, and the death toll rises, Katniss becomes an even more powerful presence. Yet her emotional resolve is not as strong as her physical one, resulting in serious doubts about the direction things are going.

Unlike the previous two installments in the wildly successful cinematic adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ YA novels, Mockingjay Part 1 is all setup… and very little payoff. It’s the foundation for the film to follow, a decent attempt at turning the illogical aspects of PanAm’s future shock into a recognizable set of action movie beats. We get rescues and covert missions, planning sessions and arguments over strategy. In between, our Oscar-winning lead looks just plain miserable, eyes constantly on the verge of tears, face contorted in a twisted combination of grief, anger, stress, and survival mode.

Mockingjay is Katniss’s coming of age. There are no games to bog down the discoveries, no set pieces expected to bring the audience to the edge of their seats. Instead, director Francis Lawrence appears to be preparing us for an all-out war, using smaller moments to highlight the horrors while reserving “the big stuff” for another movie. You can see (or rather, can’t see) the way this is going. A hydroelectric dam raid is captured at night, with the build-up and the fallout barely visible. When Gale goes into the Capital as part of a plan to rescue Peeta, the sequence is split up between the actual raid and some ancillary conversations. And the end result happens off screen.

This is the “thought” element to all those “thinking man” labels, an attempt to create a complex personal backstory before Katniss and her downtrodden Districts get medieval on the Capital. Sure, one could try for a “99% vs. 1%” analogy here, but Mockingjay isn’t out to make a political point. Instead, the script tries to straighten out Collins’s contrivances and coincidences, elevating the source beyond its pre-teen pulp leanings. It occasionally works — thanks in part to the performances all around — but it also suggests that things will get even murkier before they get better.

All of which begs the question of what the fan base will think of this film. Those new to the whole Hunger Games franchise will probably find it duller than dirt, considering the kid on kid violence that dominated the first two films. Those with a working knowledge of the narrative, on the other hand, will see this film as what it is: a prolonged tease. The other issue becomes: is it worth it? Is it worth sitting through this movie knowing full well that almost everything exciting and engaging is being saved for the finale?

The answer is a qualified, with many reservations, “Yes.” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is the necessary link between the dystopia of the title competition and the promise of a (possibly) brighter future. While it may be fun seeing where this all goes, getting there will be as big a battle as the one we anticipate is coming.

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