21 November 2014

Review: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1

This is a spoiler-free review, but there will be spoiler-y details of the previous two films, especially Catching Fire, so make sure you're at least that caught up before reading on.

Unlike its contemporaries in the young adult genre, there's no spark of fantasy or magic in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games novels. Katniss Everdeen is not following a path of manifest destiny and the conflicts in which she becomes embroiled are real and violent. But even with all the deaths we've seen thus far, the war for her homeland has been a media war, and never has that been more apparent in the hugely popular movie adaptations than in Mockingjay Part 1.

Following a traumatic escape from her second Games at the end of the previous film, Katniss is being kept safe by the rebellion leaders in the underground District 13. Her companion Peeta was left behind in the rescue mission and she can only gain halting reassurances that he'll be OK from her protectors, district president Alma Coin and media svengali Plutarch Heavensbee. They want her to be the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion, as they aim to unite the other districts to overthrow the Capitol for once and for all.

Catching Fire far exceeded the scope and stakes of the original Hunger Games even in repeating itself, and built up the momentum nicely for the final chapter. However, Lionsgate's shareholders now get to enjoy that final chapter in two lucrative parts and director Francis Lawrence shifts down accordingly. There's little in this first instalment that couldn't have been done in half an hour at the top of next year's Part 2, and there's an inescapable feeling that this one is treading water as we watch Katniss film propaganda videos and nudge the rebellion into action for just over two hours.

On a positive note, much of what was good in the first two films really comes to the fore this time around, side-lining the weaker aspects. While the violent scenes strain the 12A rating, the really interesting part of this franchise has always been the rationale behind the Games. It's about as shaky as many other YA dystopias, but it's essentially about the human cost of a vast, cruel media circus, with Katniss as the vulnerable, but resolute centre and that comes across brilliantly here.

Other than Katniss, but it feels like this one mostly focuses on Katniss, Plutarch and President Coin. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (to whom the film is dedicated) expands upon his brief turn as Plutarch from last time around, looking upon the fraught process of revolution as a media officer rather than a general or a leader. Julianne Moore is a more mercurial new addition as Coin, showing less warmth towards her followers than her PR man would like, but still more than she apparently feels. Their combined manipulation comes at Katniss from different angles throughout the films and raises questions that resonated throughout the book, and set up nicely for Part 2, (even if it is only setup.)

Jennifer Lawrence's well-honed performance as the lead character is a big part of why the film never feels boring and much as she's refreshingly unfiltered in real life, she won't play a pawn. The film's sole comedic scene comes from Plutarch trying to shoot a propaganda piece with Katniss in front of a green screen. It's utterly disastrous, prompting Woody Harrelson's sozzled mentor to suggest that they should film her in the field instead. The edited result of that endeavour is a devastating atrocity committed by the Capitol, cross-cut with Lawrence's heartfelt reactions to camera, that ends with a Mockingjay call to arms. It looks exactly like a trailer for the movie you're watching and it's hard to think of a more perfectly mounted bit of media satire in the whole series to date.

Plenty of the weaker parts of previous films fall apart too. For instance, there isn't another repetition of the Games, seeing as how this picks up right after the tumultuous events of Katniss' escape. The more exhilarating beats are more inventive as a result and for once, we see the aftermath of the Capitol's sadism in all its disturbing glory. Likewise, the underpowered love triangle has never threatened to steal attention from anything else, but it still feels stronger for making limited and more effective use of Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and finally finding some actual use for Liam Hemsworth's Gale.

But there's also far less focus on the established supporting cast- Sam Claflin and Jena Malone, who were so good last time, are largely left to one side. But when the other returning cast members show up, they're also on form- Harrelson fully grows into his abrasive mentor role, Elizabeth Banks buttons down but keeps things lively, Stanley Tucci plays it with a straight bat for once in some troubling interview scenes and Donald Sutherland is at his hateable best as the figurehead of Panem's misery, even though he barely appears anywhere in the film other than on a screen. In its own way, this is a film about shattering those screens.

It's that last part of the title Mockingjay Part 1 that puts anticlimax on the horizon from before you've even sat down to watch it. It may have shifted down a gear, but there's a trio of engrossing performances from Lawrence, Hoffman and Moore to mark it apart from other perfunctory first instalments. Moreover, there's meaning in the gloom and it's never been clearer that there's no fantasy or magic in the media or anywhere else that can avert a violent outcome to the Mockingjay's mission. It's unlikely that you'll watch this one again in isolation until Part 2 next November, but it's by no means a combo-breaker in one of the most complex and interesting Hollywood franchises going.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is now showing in cinemas and IMAX screens nationwide.
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If you've seen Mockingjay Part 1, why not share your comments below? I also award bonus points for not pulling a Knight & Day on Katniss as Collins' novel so often did.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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