Despite suffering from the usual problems that plague the first half of a split adaptation, Mockingjay- Part 1 more or less sustains the high quality of the franchise's previous outing.
Normally there’d be a whole introduction bit here, but frankly, a new Hunger Games film doesn’t really need one. Following on from the better-than-expected Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence returns to continue the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in case you were somehow unaware) and co. as they prepare for revolution against the nasty, bad Capitol people and the super nasty, super bad President Snow.
Well put-together and with an accomplished and polished look, the film is more than competently constructed, but it is lacking a certain punch, a certain spark that was so pronounced in Catching Fire. As expected the film’s problems arise from the now obligatory last novel split, in which the second film gets all the good plot, whilst the first film is reduced to having characters sit around in tents talking. This is the case here, but to a less detrimental effect than usual. Despite the issues caused by the split, the film is never anything short of engaging: true, not much happens, but it’s never boring.
There is strong character interaction and emotional beats to make up for the lack of actual action. By now the characters have all become familiar enough for a shorthand to develop, by which the viewer knows who will react in what way, and why, allowing for more intimate personal moments that stray away from the usual strict narrative focus. This is all bolstered by strong support from the likes of Woody Harrelson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Elizabeth Banks (who now stands to be the franchise’s scene-stealer). The younger cast are all quite adept and it doesn’t really need pointing out that Lawrence is just phenomenal, seeing as she seems to be incapable of being anything else. Utterly convincing as the reluctant heroine, but never whiny or unsympathetic, the series has come to rely totally on her charisma and she is more than up to the task.
The result of all this emphasis on build up is that the climactic battles to come become more eagerly anticipated, not because the pacing is too slow and boredom starts to set in, but because the despair of the heroes is made clear and their position all the more desperate. In this sense it feels less cheap than the simplistic labeling of “nothing more than a promotion for the next one” would have you believe. Occasionally the teasing can get a bit much though, one climactic sequence in particular is terrifically tense in build up, and in its refusal to stick purely to one line of action but it doesn’t really pay off.
The spurts of violence, when they do come, don’t qualify as action sequences per se, more like a few shots where something blows up or a few people get shot, scattered throughout the film. Brief though they may be, these tight little bursts of suspense and thrills showcase promise for the bigger battles that are sure to come in the final film. The effects are pristine and the visual sensibility is strong; yet when compared to the preceding film, it becomes apparent that it has no real showstopping conclusion of its own.
Generally speaking though, this is still strong. Gary Ross’ directing is still as smooth as before, with the erratic, shaky-cam aesthetic of the first film becoming all but a distant memory. True it resurfaces every now and then, but it’s within the context of more kinetic moments, rather than when characters are just having breakfast or tying their shoelaces. One area in which this entry may even improve upon its predecessors is in its treatment of the story’s politics. With a greater focus placed upon the tensions between the Districts and the Capitol, (thanks to the leisurely run time) the politics are able to develop a bit more and become more nuanced, feeling a little less like the thoughts of a particularly socially conscious eleven-year-old. What we have here is a surprisingly witty and thoughtful look at propaganda and the media’s role in the construction of the narratives of conflicts.
Thankfully, Mockingjay – Part 1 does something most other first-half-of-book adaptations don’t, in that it earns its place as a film dedicated to the whole calm before the storm idea, without feeling too draggy and directionless. It is noticeable that the narrative is being stretched, but the distinction that has to be made here, is that it feels like precisely that; stretched. Not forced and comprised solely of filler. You get the impression that much of the content here might have been cut out had this been a single film, rather than that they are making stuff up for the sake of it (a la The Hobbit), so it’s easier to swallow in that respect. Overall Mockingjay Part 1 really does whet the appetite for Part 2 and feels substantial enough in its own right to be worth recommending, but it does lose some of its sheen as a consequence of the concessions it has to make to save the real fireworks for the big finale.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014), directed by Francis Lawrence, is distributed in UK cinemas by Lionsgate, Certificate 12A.