I picture some poor unknowing shmuck venturing into The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 unfamiliar with its source material and, god forbid, unfamiliar with the films that preceded it.
I picture said shmuck going "What the f*** is a Mockingjay?"
That's part of the problem with this first of two films based upon Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay novel, a novel with barely enough true substance for one film and certainly not enough substance to justify this money-grabbing yet still moderately satisfying film that starts the winding down of our time with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
While the first two films in the series did a decent enough job of acting as stand-alone films, Mockingjay - Part 1 doesn't even try. There are characters who receive no exposition. There's terminology that will certainly not make any sense to the newbie. There's relationships that don't even come close to being convincing in this film, yet our surrender to them is paramount to our ability to surrender to this film's two hours of gloomy action and melodramatic dialogue.
The worst among these relationships? Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), whose relationship of sorts is certainly documented quite well in the first two films yet for someone who hasn't experienced this series or these novels it'll play out as completely unbelievable bordering on absurd.
Austrian director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), who took over with the last film and will stick around for the final, shifts too far into I Am Legend territory but is at least gifted with an actress the caliber of Jennifer Lawrence rather than the over-emoting and line punching Mila Kunis. The film kicks off with a traumatized Katniss trying to recover from the violence of the most recent Hunger Games, but even moreso trying to recover from the loss of Peeta. She has been whisked away to a vast underground campus where those seeking rebellion gather and prepare including President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and the strategist Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) along with old beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and Effie (Elizabeth Banks).
The plan, as concocted by Plutarch and President Coin, is for Katniss to become the face of the revolution - The Mockingjay. This task appears, more than anything, to involve appearances by Katniss in provocative yet inspirational action sequences that are designed to inspire the other districts to join the rebellion. While Katniss is becoming the face of the rebellion, her beloved Peeta's presence is being used in a decidedly different way.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 isn't an awful film, though it lacks the cohesive action and compelling spirit so evident in the first two films. The film benefits greatly from the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, a talented actress who manages to find emotional depth and sincerity even when the dialogue is betraying her.
Much of this film centers around painting a series of broad strokes about the power and influence of well crafted propaganda, yet the film suffers because it never really gives the viewer an emotional frame of reference for the lesson. The ultimate proof of this shortfall comes within the film's final scene, a sequence I certainly will not describe here yet a sequence clearly designed to move the action forward to the final film and to do so in a way that is deeply felt and inspiring.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work and I just sort of shrugged my shoulders and said "Who cares?"
Fortunately, it's entirely likely that lots of people care and lots of people will be lined up for this film and the final film in the series. While I understand the desire to capitalize on the popularity of the series, the simple truth is that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 loses part of its razzle dazzle as a result and this becomes what is easily the weakest of the three films so far. While it's still worth a view, do yourself a favor and familiarize with the material if you're not already familiar. Otherwise, you'll spend more time trying to figure everything out than actually watching the film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic