[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]lthough Hunger Games was successful, it was met with a substantial amount of criticism for being flat. Catching Fire, on the other hand, was a surprisingly good movie that was far better than its novel counterpart. The overwhelming success of the movie invariably hyped up the release for the next installment – Mockingjay Part 1.
I read the series, and always found Katniss to be unlikable and the books to be simplistically/unrealistically written (but understand that’s due to being much older than the intended audience). However, I thought the movies were a great improvement and fully expected the Mockingjay films to pick out the best bits of Suzanne Collins’ ideas and creativity. Instead, Mockingjay Part 1 fell far short of expectation. Instead of taking the time to build the characters and instill empathy to make the audience equally motivated for the war on the Capitol, Part 1 was an uninteresting prologue that did little to explain or emote much of anything. However, there were some good aspects of the movie that broke up all the dullness.
- The acting. Given a rather limited story, the acting was excellent. For a character that spends most of her time crying, hiding, or whining, Jennifer Lawrence really brings Katniss to life and actually makes her likable. Julianne Moore (Alma Coin) and Donald Sutherland (President Snow) make chilling leaders. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee) gives us a Capitol misfit focused on what the Capitol does best: propaganda. Woody Harleson (Haymich) and Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket) are the endearing comic relief. Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) gives a good performance of internal conflict, while Liam Hemsworth (Gale) basically does his best with what limited range his character is given. Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair) and Natalie Dormer (Cressida) also show acting talent despite being side characters. All in all, the actors do an excellent job and bring life to an otherwise dull film.
- Political commentary. The first part of the film focuses on how the rebel side uses Katniss for political effect. She is hurt and lost, done being used by the Capitol only to be used by her own side as well. It is clear that District 13 leader Coin is using Katniss every bit as much as Snow’s government was, and her militaristic district resembles one of a communist regime. Where one side is ostentatious and greedy, the other is restricted and lifeless, and both employ many of the same political tactics to get what they want. There isn’t much complexity, but the film delivers on a young adult novel’s version of political satire.
- The glam is gone. While much of the Capitol glitz and glam was entertaining and visually stunning, it’s nice to see Katniss looking natural and in a setting that’s as gritty as the revolution. The majority of the film takes place within District 13, a militaristic cement hole with little color and less humor. It is a correlate to Katniss’s own feeling of uselessness and entrapment. Jennifer Lawrence spends a fair amount of time pouring out some pretty raw feelings of helplessness and desperation, and in a way that incurs genuine sympathy rather than drama-queen annoyance. The ever-handsome Finnick is equally muted and vulnerable, Haymitch is sober, and even the lovely Effie has lost her butterflies. While the sense of helplessness is vital to the portrayal of the districts as victims, it is a little overemphasized and would be better accompanied by a wider range of emotional responses.
- You get to see Panem. As the book is told solely from the first-person perspective of Katniss, it is nice to see the movie show us a little of what’s going on in the capitol. This is especially important in developing the audience’s hatred of President Snow and in portraying the Capitol’s keeping tabs on the rebels. These are also some of the only breaks we get from being trapped in the sad, gray-heavy setting of District 13.
- The effects. Although there isn’t much action, what effects are present in the Mockingjay Part 1 are pretty good. This is especially true for the work on Peeta, who gets progressively more emaciated as the rebellion becomes more destructive. I found the airships to be believable and the camera technology intriguing.
- It’s just a build-up. Like many other first-half finales, Mockingjay Part 1 really doesn’t have a whole lot going on. While we all expected that Part 2 would be the one with all the action, I expected Part 1 to have more than the complete dearth of action we ended up with. So then there must be a lot of character development, right? Not really, just more of the same old Katniss.
- Why do we care? If all the action is going to be diverted to Part 2, we should at least become motivated for action in Part 1. The book had plenty of its own flaws, but had more than enough strong points as well. Instead, we just get weeping, helpless Katniss (improved as she is by Lawrence). Aside from Annie’s captivity, there isn’t much explanation of Finnick’s vulnerability outside the games; the film glosses over his being essentially prostituted to admiring capitol fans – male and female – against his will. Gale and Beetee don’t get to have the interaction that provides a basis for discussion of the necessary sacrifices of war. The audience gets zero chance to connect to the District 8 hospital occupants (or any non-District 13 rebels); no individual meetings or heart-wrenching stories to make us care about these people dying minutes later. Free from the first-person perspective of the novel, this was our chance to see people beaten and broken by the capitol, but still fighting back. The mass-destruction is awful, but seeing characters you’ve come to love suffer and die has a stronger impact.
- The fight scenes. Apparently, large packs of the peacekeepers went to Stormtrooper academy, and can’t fire an accurate shot any better than their masks can keep out toxic gas. On the other hand, large masses of citizens storming a very well-armed dam didn’t think about the moderate amount of support having at least one shield might give. Even in Helm’s Deep where much of the fighting was limited to close combat, they had shields! And these district peacekeepers are decent shots, and no shields against dozens of high-capacity automatic weapons probably wouldn’t be a long fight. In a government that can literally create whatever it wants, like hallucination-inducing bees, it takes two bomber planes three tries to actually take down an unarmed (for some reason in this movie) hospital. The rescue mission was simply a drawn-out montage of opening doors while dressed in riot gear. People in real history have done incredibly clever things with much less to win battles, I don’t understand why films take the short way out with these types of fight scenes.
- The music. Much of the music was good on its own, but some of the choices seemed a little odd. Maybe I just feel like the acoustic female opera-singing is better suited as a juxtaposition to an epic fight scene in fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings or a really powerful wide shot in a video game. Not really my thing when I’m watching a teenage girl look at rubble. It’s a sad moment, but the music was a little exaggerated. I was, however, a fan of “The Hanging Tree” and was happy to see it make more sense sung aloud than in the book.
- It’s still based on a young adult novel. The love triangle is still there, the political complexity isn’t. Peeta’s hijacking is a huge moral cop-out. I do think that this film delivers to the intended audience of the books, but that means it isn’t guaranteed to be a great movie. Unrealistic simplification is going to happen to meet the experience of its young audience, and it’s usually going to cost the film a little believability and interested for older audiences.
Overall, Mockingjay Part 1 is the same dull build-up other franchises like Harry Potter and The Hobbit have faced as well. It is blessed with brilliant acting, but that only gets a film so far. If LotR’s Return of the King could find a way to make one movie work, a teen drama sure could have. This is by no means the worst film ever or even a really bad one, it just isn’t good and definitely didn’t live up to the hype. Disagree? Let us know in the comments below!