The biggest problem with the new Hunger Games movie is right there in the title: Part 1. Mockingjay, the final installment in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling YA trilogy, wasn’t conceived in two parts. That was a decision made in Hollywood by a studio looking to double down and milk every last dime out of its blockbuster franchise. The suits probably thought, ”Hey, it worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, so why not us?” You can’t blame them for wanting to keep the good times rolling. But it’s a pretty cynical business plan, and it’s led to a film that feels needlessly padded. Mockingjay—Part 1 is like a term paper with the margins enlarged and the font size jacked up to reach the assigned number of pages.
This is especially disappointing because the previous chapter, 2013’s Catching Fire, was such a pleasant surprise. While the 2012 original laid out Collins’ dystopian death-sport milieu with flair and faithfulness, it was also a bit flat. Catching Fire, on the other hand, gave the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, an adrenalized urgency. As played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss developed into a character who was both brainy and badass. Now, in Mockingjay—Part 1, she’s become passive. The movie picks up after the incendiary conclusion of Catching Fire’s Quarter Quell, when Katniss was rescued and brought to the rebels’ underground fortress in District 13. Here, the anti-Capitol leaders plot their next strike against President Snow (Donald Sutherland), hatching a plan to turn Katniss into the fiery symbol of the resistance and spur the powerless citizens of Panem to rise up against the Capitol. It’s a propaganda war, and she’s the secret weapon—a Che Guevara T-shirt made flesh. The rebel brain trust includes President Coin (Julianne Moore, sporting silver Cruella De Vil locks), spin-savvy strategist Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated), hacker Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), the newly clean and sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, channeling a drag queen). They send Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to the front lines with a guerrilla film crew that records her battlefield heroics and beams it all back to the huddled masses.
But Snow has a secret weapon of his own. Kidnapped by the nefarious president’s forces at the end of the last movie, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) reappears in the Capitol, and in a series of interviews with the sensationalist journalist Caesar (Stanley Tucci), he denounces Katniss and urges a cease-fire. The betrayal devastates her, forcing her to realize that her feelings for him weren’t a charade after all. With its Wag the Dog subplot and fist-in-the-air proletarianism, Mockingjay may be the most harmlessly Marxist movie to come out of Hollywood since Reds. I suppose director Francis Lawrence and writers Peter Craig and Danny Strong deserve some credit for daring to sneak any political cheekiness into a movie that’s as big and corporate as this. But overall their hands are tied too tightly. While the series’ first two films captured the grandeur of the outdoors during the kill-or-be-killed competitions, Mockingjay is mostly bound to the bleak and claustrophobic bowels of a bunker. It suffocates the film. And when the story finally does manage to get interesting toward the end, it just screeches to a halt and cuts off, leaving fans wriggling on the hook for a finale they won’t get to see for another 12 months. That’s not a cliff-hanger, that’s just a tease. B-