Flinging itself into darker territory than the previous entries, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is another impressive chapter in a series that has proven to be much more complex and thoughtful than the genre typically allows. Though it’s certainly much lighter on the action than previous entries, “Mockingjay” still brings a compelling story that wisely limits the melodrama, delivering a meditation on the nature of heroism dressed up as your average popcorn flick. Even with a couple of eye-rolling detours from reality and a bit of fluff that wasn’t as prevalent earlier in the series, “Mockingjay – Part 1” has it where it counts as it sets up the series-capper.
The reluctant hero has long been a staple of action cinema, giving Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen the type of familiarity that many movie lovers are sure to be used to. Though we know she’s wrapped up too tightly in the drama to escape, Katniss struggles to see her role in the brewing rebellion against the tyrannical Capitol. Instead of jumping right into the mix, our hero is torn apart by the supposed loss of her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was swept up into the carnage that destroyed the annual Hunger Games tournament at the end of “Catching Fire.”
Needing a little convincing to help overcome her night terrors, Katniss is in good hands with Plutarch, an encouraging mastermind played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the type of wise soul that every successful rebellion needs. Also in the mix is President Coin (Julianne Moore), the calculating figurehead of the rebellion who may or may not be too comfortable in her shoes as the chosen leader. Though Katniss is a bit of an emotional wreck, Plutarch sees the fiery rebel lurking just beneath her doleful disposition – a volcano waiting to explode if given the opportunity. For a rebellion in need of an icon, Katniss looks like a clear choice to be the face of the movement.
Meanwhile, the Capitol is consolidating its power under President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the ruthless and amoral villain who has mastered the art of appearing to be in total control. He may be ordering the mass bombings of unruly districts all over the civilized world, but in front of a camera he is polished and poised, the perfect authoritarian to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who would dare rebel. Instead of a frothing, over-the-top supervillain, Sutherland relishes in the opportunity to play it cool, which allows for the Capitol to be that much more menacing. If action movies are often made or broken by their villains, “Mockingjay” reminds us that the series has the right counterpoint.
And it’s with this interchange between Snow and Katniss that “Mockingjay” finds its stride, thrusting the audience into the middle of a rebellion that almost seems desperate and suicidal. From early on in human civilization, wars have depended upon propaganda to spur armies on to victory, something that “Mockingjay” puts right at the heart of the story. Katniss isn’t just an action hero to be sent on secret missions that overwhelm the Capitol, but instead only becomes truly dangerous when videos of her heroism, real or imagined, start filtering throughout the rebelling districts. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Katniss tries to fake her way through a filming session in which she’s supposed to epitomize the heroism of the entire rebellion. To say that she struggles wouldn’t quite do it justice; clearly she’s much better at firing arrows and talking tough with President Snow than projecting the heroism of an entire movement on camera.
Also helping the story is a wealth of well-chosen actors, offering a balance to the occasionally dreary melodrama between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Even though Woody Harrelson is clearly meant to be the comic relief as Katniss’ drunkard of a tutor, he still manages some of the movie’s biggest laughs, reminding us that there are few actors around who can be as likeably sleazy. Elizabeth Banks’ painfully monotone Effie Trinket might be a bitter pill to swallow at times, though here she also provides some levity that breaks up the death and destruction. In the lead, Katniss may not seem terribly complex, yet it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Jennifer Lawrence as the brooding centerpiece. In her third go as Katniss, Lawrence again succeeds as the strong-willed, down-to-Earth girl courageously accepting the uphill battle, managing to make it through some hokey dialog to keep the movie’s momentum intact.
Even if “Mockingjay – Part 1” is somewhat of a pullback from the surprisingly sharp “Catching Fire,” it still impressively fleshes out the “Hunger Games” universe and puts all of the pieces in place for the finale. Once you’ve seen a bow and arrow take out two fighter jets – at the same time no less – you would be hard-pressed to call anything you see realistic, yet “Mockingjay” refuses to turn the series into a cartoon and consistently finds a way to keep the story grounded. By focusing on the politics of propaganda and the nature of control and order, “Mockingjay – Part 1” offers enough interesting commentary to keep “The Hunger Games” series elevated from most of the action franchises out there today.