With each installment, The Hunger Games series gets more complicated and more interesting. The latest, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, based on the first half of the last novel in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) regrouping after a rebel cell sprung her from her second Hunger Games, a position she found herself in after inadvertently inspiring a revolution with her first win. In this film, she’s confused and distraught. Her friend and ally, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is captured, a hostage of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the ostentatious Captiol. She’s hunkered in an underground bunker in the wilds of District 13, helping the rebels plan how best to use her popularity to galvanize the whole Panem country and foment open warfare against the tyrants who’ve oppressed them for so long.
Returning director Francis Lawrence, this time with a screenplay adapted by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, turns this dilemma into the stuff of potent political allegory. The series has grown increasingly ideologically fascinating, starting as a surface-level jab at class conflict and reality TV competitions and evolving into what is now a radicalized story of class warfare waged through propaganda battles, lopsided bombing campaigns, and surprise attacks. It’s a grab bag of geopolitical reference points, but the central image of downtrodden working class folks rising up against wealthy tyrants is a stirring one. This feature, which picks up right where the last left off and builds towards yet another cliffhanger, extends the conflicts’ emotional damage while gearing up for the grand finale to hit theaters this time next year. It plays upon our sympathies built up in previous installments and our understanding that there’s more to come.
The film devotes most of its runtime to Katniss struggling with what the movement needs her to be and the conflicted feelings roiling inside her. She never asked to be a leader. In the first film, she was a symbol for the Capitol. The second film found her a symbol for Panem. In both cases, she had no say in the matter. Now, the leaders of the burgeoning rebellion expect her, the Mockingjay symbol incarnate, to appear in their stirring propaganda campaign, smuggled over the airways into the tinderboxes that are the increasingly violently oppressed districts ready to explode. It’s a movie about how heroes are not just born to lead, but built and shaped for their movement’s needs. We’re introduced to a team of commando cameramen (lead by Natalie Dormer) intent on following Katniss into guerilla warfare, capturing great galvanizing images to broadcast. These dispatches look an awful lot like an ad campaign for a Hunger Games movie, so you know they’re effective.
As the rebellion gets ready to make their next step, Katniss talks with familiar returning characters. She sees a friend (Liam Hemsworth), a mentor (Woody Harrelson), her image consultant (Elizabeth Banks), her sister (Willow Shields), and fellow Games’ victors (Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright). They’re a collection of great character actors involved in scheming, debating, giving orders, and delivering speeches. Most poignant is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles as a canny political operative strategizing the rebellion’s next move. The rebel leader (Julianne Moore, sporting long grey hair) is a new addition, another forceful but sympathetic voice echoing in Katniss’ head.
This could all be static, marking time until the real action can ramp up for the presumably fiery climax of Mockingjay – Part 2. Indeed, it grows cramped and a little repetitive at times. (Tell me why Katniss needs to take a nearly identical tour of ruined District 12 twice?) And the emotional journeys the characters take are mostly minor adjustments that leave them better ready to launch into the next film. But with such great actors involved, especially Lawrence, Moore, and Hoffman, the political calculations of a growing rebellion feel meaningful. Most effectively, the filmmakers have an even greater sense of the world’s details. The spaces feel lived in and thought through. There’s a sense of weight and import to characters’ discussions, real meaning to the sporadic splashes of violence. It’s best when opening up the contained bunker dramas, showing us other parts of Panem carrying out strikes against the forces of Capitol-ism. In one moving scene, a folk song becomes a rallying cry in one of the more unblinking representations of uprising I’ve seen in recent years. There’s real impact to their decisions.
Perhaps we’ll eventually be better off thinking of Francis Lawrence’s three Hunger Games films as one three-part story instead of discreet units. For now, though, it’s fun to simply be back in an engaging world with smart ideas and some stirring action bouncing around a well-constructed blockbuster. I was pulled into the film’s space and enjoyed occupying it for a couple of hours, even if by the end I would’ve much rather watched another couple hours right then and there instead of having to wait a whole year to see it reach an actual conclusion. What’s most exciting about the story told here is the way the filmmakers – and Collins, in her books – are not afraid to change the dynamics, alter the scenario, and do things differently. Here, the games are over, the characters are on the run, with no hope of safety until they see things through to the end. And that’s where they leave us, eager to see where that end will be.