The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Well, at least they don’t have to go through the Hunger Games again. That’s one of the main selling points of the awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, the third movie in the dystopian sci-fi series based on Suzanne Collins’ novels. After enduring the titular tournament of death twice now, the main characters in Mockingjay have moved on to fighting directly against their totalitarian government, joining a rebel alliance looking to bring down the rich plutocrats of the country’s capital, led by the delightfully evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Thanks to her two stints as the star of the Hunger Games, headstrong teenager Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a symbol of the revolution, but her reluctance to become a literal symbol in propaganda videos for the movement is the movie’s central (and most rewarding) theme.
After escaping the Hunger Games in the second film, Katniss is holed up in the previously hidden District 13, the only stronghold of rebellion against the government. But the rebel leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), is nearly as slippery and untrustworthy as Snow himself, and Katniss at first balks at her invitation to become a propaganda star. The series’ bland love triangle gets a welcome jolt as Katniss’ former Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), held captive in the Capitol, has been conscripted as a mouthpiece for the government, while her hometown sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is now one of the top lieutenants in the rebellion. Katniss’ choice between the two now represents something more than picking Hunk A or Hunk B, and it ties into the movie’s representation of her as a bargaining chip between two morally compromised sides.
Katniss’ status as a pawn is thematically interesting, but in practice it means she has little agency in her own story, and the movie overall suffers from a lack of excitement and forward momentum. Without the Games as a framework, there aren’t any big effects-heavy set pieces, and the minimal action is mostly unremarkable. Dividing Collins’ final novel into a two-part movie means that certain events get drawn out unnecessarily (Katniss goes on two separate soul-searching trips to the bombed-out ruins of her former home in District 12), although it does offer the series its chance to go for an Empire Strikes Back moment by ending the movie on a stark, downbeat note.
Those downbeat notes, suggesting that the liberation movement is not all it’s cracked up to be, are the movie’s strongest elements, and Moore portrays President Coin as the right mix of inspirational and insidious. Her interactions with former Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as they plan Katniss’ ad campaign (which is just a hashtag away from the movie’s actual marketing) show just how devious our heroine’s ostensible new allies can be. Mockingjay may lack the action and excitement of the previous two movies, but it makes up for it in greater emotional and thematic resonance, and sets the stage for a more satisfying finale.