We’re at a point now where debating the merits of splitting a book into two parts for the movie has grown a tad stale.
Yes, it’s happening a lot more lately – Peter Jackson has somehow managed to milk a trilogy out of The Hobbit – but the trend itself, which seems to colour more than a few critic’s reviews, isn’t that interesting, mainly because the argument doesn’t go too far beyond “if there’s enough material there, great, if not… well that’s not going to stop anyone from doing it anyway.”
Which is sort of why it pains me to start my review with the critical equivalent of saying climate change is bad, but for all the insight and analysis I can come up with, the root cause of my tempered enthusiasm for this year’s iteration of The Hunger Games is that there just doesn’t seem to be enough material to work with. Mockingjay too often feels like half a movie, the minor qualms are all just symptoms.
When we last saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) she had been rescued from the games, sans her District 12 companion Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), by rebels from District 13. In Mockingjay, we find her – albeit somewhat reluctantly – as the mouthpiece for the rebellion, all while doing her best to persuade her new hosts to mount a rescue for the captured Peeta.
Complicating those efforts are Peeta himself, who is beginning to appear in propaganda pieces at the behest of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) discouraging people from joining the rebellion against the capital. In a sense, Katniss and Peeta become the dueling faces of the rebellion/anti-rebellion agendas.
To be honest, all of that amounts to a pretty slow start for Mockingjay. The early going is heavy on dialogue laden scenes meant to justify placing Katniss back into the fray, and that tends to bring out the more “young adult novel” aspects of The Hunger Games (read: contrived plotting). In the past, Lawrence’s performance has been able to ground some of the sillier qualities of the series, but even she can’t quite sell it here.
Which sort of leads me into one of the more disappointing realities of the first part of Mockingjay, which is that Katniss lacks the teeth she’s had in earlier installments.
This time around she’s been somewhat sidelined from the action, and the lack of urgency has transformed her from the strong, gritty young woman that made the first two films so refreshingly great into a far more brooding, reactionary figure, mourning all the nasty things that’ve happened to her.
Now it’s not that there’s anything wrong with being vulnerable. On the contrary, it’s Katniss’ vulnerability that makes her such a well-rounded and relatable character. It’s just that the previous two movies have done such a better job of balancing that vulnerability with a sort of inherent resilience.
Perhaps though, it’s more a problem of scale. In its first half, the series focused mainly on Katniss’ personal struggle to survive. Now it’s about revolution, with Katniss simply playing her, albeit significant, part.
Unfortunately, what that seems to amount to is a lot of scenes of Katniss making a statement followed by a crowd responding to whatever it is Katniss just said. You know, just in case you were wondering whether it was motivating anyone or not.
Which is exactly my problem with this sort of plot device, it’s just basically the writing telling us how inspiring the writing is. Frankly, if that were true, and the movie as a whole were doing what it’s supposed to, the audience shouldn’t need that reinforcement, we should just be inspired.
But I need to be fair here, because there are times when Mockingjay accomplishes just that. I know most of this must be coming across pretty negative, but that’s more because The Hunger Games has set such a high bar in the past I feel I need to justify my mild discontent this time out.
The film can still be moving when it wants to be. It’s still got Jennifer Lawrence. And while she’s hidden away for parts of the film, Mockingjay still has one of the best heroines of any of the Young Adult adaptations flooding the market.
Likewise, The Hunger Games is still a compelling franchise. Sure, the ending of this one didn’t have as much punch as one would like in the second to last installment, but the series is nevertheless positioned to deliver something great in the finale.
The problem with Mockingjay Part One is that at this point in the story we’re watching the wrong people. It’s the rebels actually fighting for this cause that are interesting, not the people recruiting them. And to that there’s an easy solution – just make Katniss one of them.
I have a feeling that may be the plan, it’s just that one book got cut into two movies.
Final Score: 3/5