Box Office Democracy: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”
I understand that we can’t put the genie back in the bottle on these two part movies. Harry Potter might have actually needed to make two movies for The Deathly Hallows but Twilight certainly didn’t and what Peter Jackson is doing to The Hobbit will hopefully go down as one of the greatest crimes in cinema. Now we have things like splitting an Avengers movie in to two parts, which is insane when you consider that it’s not an adapted work at all. It used to be important to tell a complete story when making a movie and now audiences don’t care and it’s certainly more profitable to do one big shoot and then get multiple admissions for it. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 does not have enough story for a two hour movie and the character arc is less about real change and more about restating what we’ve seen before. This weak skeleton holds back a movie franchise that continues on an upward trend in quality in direction, acting, casting, and pretty much every other aspect of filmmaking that isn’t shameless profit grabbing.
Where Mockingjay establishes itself as head and shoulders better than its competition in the revolutionary youth genre that has sprung up is, at this point, the spectacular performances it gets out of the cast. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches. Woody Harrelson is electric but only used in a handful of scenes. Elizabeth Banks is wringing a terrific amount of growth out of a character that could easily be a one-note joke. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is amazing and while this might not be exactly what I would have wished his last role would have been but he’s nothing less than remarkable in it. He was perfect casting for the role and brings an authenticity to a character you know has no grounding in the real world. At the center of all this is Jennifer Lawrence doing outstanding work with an underwritten character. Katniss Everdeen never seems like she’s doing anything but Lawrence adds so much to scenes with her eyes and her facial movements that you can walk out of the film completely forgetting that.
There’s always been an uncomfortable race undertone in the Hunger Games film franchise. Starting with whitewashing Katniss from the olive-skinned character in the book to the very white Jennifer Lawrence continuing the backlash from some in the fandom that Rue was depicted as black despite clearly being black in the book there’s an uneasiness there. The later movies have diversified the districts a little bit and it helps but I’m watching scenes of the uprising and I see people of colored being killed for a war where the leaders on both sides are overwhelmingly white. The rebellion has a black head of security and President Snow’s speechwriter is a person of color but it doesn’t change that the overwhelming majority of characters with names in leadership positions are lily white and it’s distracting and it takes away from a good film. The lynching iconography invoked by a spiritual-adjacent song called “The Hanging Tree” being used as the song Katniss sings to rally the people helps not at all. I understand that the people in charge of this series creatively are not the same people who were in charge of the original casting and I really wanted to give them a pass but I just can’t shake the feeling of watching something vaguely gross.
In the end, there’s just not enough movie here. There’s great moments, moving scenes and some fantastic acting but nothing happens. It’s an entire movie of sound and fury signifying nothing. The characters and the plot barely inch forward from where they were at the beginning of the film. If Lionsgate was so set on getting four movies out of this trilogy of books Catching Fire seems, in retrospect, to have been the story to do it with. That was a movie bursting with too much plot to be contained and this is a cinematic ghost town scrambling for an ending that lends this divide some credibility. They fail and that failure casts a shadow over an otherwise excellent film.