“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” *1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci
Written by: Peter Craig & Danny Strong (screenplay), based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Film criticism, I think, must take into account a film’s intent, whether or not it aligns with your personal wants and needs. I also recognize the legions of ‘Hunger Games’ book fans, and acknowledge that I have not laid a hand on any of them. Your passion for the material is noted. Understanding that, I find that reviewing films like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 to be an absolute chore. I am clearly not the audience, and I’m required by fans to show reverence for the source material, yet I still ask that the film achieve something greater than its’ source material. This is film, cinema, movies; this is the stuff of our dreams, and should leap off the screen and be remembered. It shouldn’t simply be the narration of a book that aims to please (at its core) a younger audience that at times can barely comprehend what they are feeling. For me, this latest sequel is just that- a meaningless narration, a non-challenging exercise of pre-packaged capitalism, simply collecting the money we have been pre-programmed to hand out. It doesn’t need or aspire to work for a greater creative purpose, and thus exists as an empty enterprise.
So, like a lamb to the slaughter, I sat down to the film with zero optimism, waiting for the inevitable uninspiring yawn to spew forth. As with Catching Fire before it, Mockingjay bores its’ audience, simply presenting a long series of rote, expected scenes and set pieces rife with artificial feelings, standard speeches, and meaningless treacle about absolutely nothing. Nothing happens in this film, or at least nothing of importance. I am responsible for my own misery here, as I fully understood what I was getting into, but ultimately, we’re all responsible for this type of drivel.
Collectively, we seem to yearn for the simple, uncomplicated storytelling and easy narratives brought forth by young adult material, but therein lies the problem with it. At best, it is unnecessary, easy to digest, always establishing the next film, promising to pay off in the end. At worst, it is irresponsible. Here’s what I mean- the basis of the “Hunger Games” story centers around the idea of children murdering each other for the enjoyment of the elite. Not only is that awful from a moral standpoint, it automatically brings to mind a dark, bloody sensibility, and in order to take it seriously, I’m requiring that the films at least be brave about the very subject the story is based on. The closest thing to that level of responsibility any of the “Hunger Games” films have presented is a slightly macabre scene in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stands over what amounts to a mass grave of still smoldering District 12 residents. Everything else is “teen-sheened” for that nice, PG-13 gloss. That these films need to be rated PG-13 speaks to their inherent ridiculousness.
So what happens in Mockingjay? I already said ‘nothing’, but I suppose there are technically ‘things’ that ‘happen’. If you’ve seen Catching Fire, you know that Katniss went and shot for the stars (literally), bringing down the whole arena and ending the games. She is rescued by the rebellion of ‘District 13’, and in the process is separated from Peeta (Hutcherson). I literally have no idea if Katniss has romantic feelings for he or Gale (Hemsworth), brotherly feelings, or if they both just represent something that she loves. I’m sure a fan can tell me. Peeta is alive and sending mixed messages through broadcasts from the capital, appearing to work for President Snow (Sutherland). Is that the case? Has he been brainwashed? Should the rebellion rescue him? Does this inspire other questions about the film’s lack of sensibility? Is Katniss so darned important to this ‘rebellion’ that it’s ok for her to enter war zones? What’s a ‘Plutarch Heavensbee’? Can bees and dogs really smell fear?
That is the unfortunate, ridiculous place that my mind wanders to after watching Mockingjay (or any of these films, to be honest). I get lost trying to keep track of the silly rules and foundations that this type of film lazily constructs because they don’t have the capacity to provide the entire book’s narrative setup. Perhaps the filmmakers assume most of their viewers will fill in the film’s gaps, but I cannot do that. I wonder- how did the Harry Potter films (the argument against my distaste for YA fiction) accomplish what they did? Did the whimsical nature of magic allow us to forget the occasional awkward stalls and poor pacing, or was the source material just that rich? I’ll just leave that question out there. I know the answer.
Unfortunately for her, Lawrence appears even more lost than I am, and certainly out-of-place. Her involvement in Mockingjay is summed up in an odd series of scenes where she observes something, then shudders in fear, then bawls. I wondered where the strong young woman from the first film was- the leader, the reason I bothered watching any of these in the first place? The idea that her character may or may not suffer from a form of PTSD is highly plausible, but then I contrast that with the world these people are living in. Isn’t she already familiar with devastation, loss, and subordination? These seem like new concepts for a population that supposedly has endured 75 years of abuse. I’m confused, aren’t you? Lawrence does her best to bring some emotion to the role, but she’s better than this film. Most of these actors are.
No one is more aware that I’m not the audience for this film than I, and I’m honestly reticent to be so harsh to what others love so much. Mockingjay, however, is the among the worst kind of movies in my eyes, simply there to perpetuate itself without the responsibility of being wort its’ cinematic weight. As opposed to good film, which would elevate the source material, this plays like a bored narrator, content to feed the audience exactly what it wants. Lionsgate, never content with their library of mediocre franchises ready to excrete on the public, has what they wanted- a large pile of money to bathe in. Congratulations.