When the folks behind the Harry Potter franchise decided to split the final book into two films, it set an unfortunate president. In that particular case, it was actually an appropriate choice. JK Rowling’s book had a logical end point in the middle and both halves could still work as standalone movies when split in half. That’s not true of every franchise capping novel, but it’s now the formula that any adaptation of such a series must now follow. It makes sense financially, allowing studios to double their profits before sending a cash cow out to pasture. However, in the case of a film like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the problems in that approach are all too obvious. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never read the book, so perhaps it is too big to be contained by a single film. I can’t comment on that. However, I can comment on the fact that there definitely isn’t enough material within Mockingjay Part 1 to feel like a complete film. This is still an interesting piece of work like both of the Hunger Games movies, it’s just a shame that studio politics forced the filmmakers to stretch the set up to a franchise climax out to a tedious two hours that grinds the whole series to a sullen halt.
After the last Hunger Games flick, the franchise shifted focus and this follow up continues course. The Battle Royale kid-killing games are now gone and in their place the series has become a tale of political rebellion. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is now hiding out with a rebel army in an underground shelter. Led by a cool n’ calculated Julianne Moore the society-topping rebels have a thinly veiled communist sheen. The bright colors and ridiculous excess of the ruling class are contrasted by the grays and minimalism of the underground rebel army. Along with former games master Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moore is hoping that Karniss will assume the role of the Mockingjay to symbolically lead the rebellion (they’ve also brought her love interest Liam Hemsworth and her family along to sweeten the deal). After seeing some of the carnage that the government has doled out following the events of the last movie, Katniss agrees and shoots a few strange propaganda shorts. At the other end of the spectrum, Donald Sutherland’s evil leader of the totalitarian government is struggling to retain control and has kidnapped and possibly brainwashed Katniss’ Hunger Games buddy/love interest Josh Hutcherson into filming his own propaganda videos pleading for peace amongst the plebes. It’s all very sad, political, and symbolic, building up to a final battle over the fate of this society that obviously won’t be wrapped up anytime soon in a film that has “Part 1” in the title.
The good news first, The Hunger Games remains one of the smartest, darkest and most compelling of the YA blockbuster adaptations on the market. While shifting gears into this rebellion themed finale, the thematic weight of the series has only increased. It’s nice to know that one of the massive Hollywood franchises for teens offers such a dark anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian message with a strong female hero. On top of that, it’s also nice that this franchise has offered the same big paycheck haven for American indie actors as Harry Potter did for British thespians with the likes of Moore, the late great Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and even Lawrence getting a chance to work their indie movie magic on a project with such a grand scale. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) might not be a master, but he has a strong visual sense and knows how to stage action that hurts, making this one of the few tent pole franchises that deglamorizes violence. There’s a lot to like about what the Hunger Games franchise represents here, so it’s real a shame that the movie feels so incomplete.
The bottom line is that despite all of the resonant themes and reoccurring characters to grace the screening in Mocking Jay Part 1, there’s just not enough material for a movie. There’s only one major on screen action scene for this spectacle driven franchise and even though another big one occurs in the climax, it’s frustratingly kept off screen. There is about an hour worth of actual story and character development in the film, but it’s been doubled in length through endless scenes of Katniss staring sullen-faced into the distance and characters repeating the same concepts and plot points ad nauseum. The movie might be quite pointed and harsh for a teen blockbuster, yet it’s also oddly devoid of any of the surface pleasures blockbuster filmmaking. That’s a major problem since what made the franchise so effective until now was that mix of content and spectacle that is now totally out of balance. Chances are that all of these problems could have disappeared if the final book had been condensed to a single movie. Even if the next chapter plays as a two hour climax, it’s hard to say whether or not it was worth sacrificing this movie to get there. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a slog to sit through and that’s one word that should never be used to describe a blockbuster. It might be a compelling and well-made slog, but it’s a slog nonetheless. Despite everything that is done well, it’s hard not to feel duped by this half-a-movie when the credits roll. The filmmakers had better make up for this in the delayed finale.