When last we saw two-time Hunger Games competitor Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she had just broken out of the arena and found sanctuary with a group of District 13 rebels under the leadership of game designer-turned-revolutionary Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE director Francis Lawrence's THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1, an adaptation of the first half of the final book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, picks up several weeks later, and chronicles the final steps in Katniss' transformation from The Girl On Fire - would-be political plaything of the odious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) - into the Mockingjay - propaganda icon for a political revolution led by newly introduced rebel general, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore).
So how do they lure Katniss back into hungerdome this time? Mercifully, they don't. MOCKINGJAY is the first of the HUNGER GAMES films to eschew an actual hunger games game. On one hand, this comes as a major relief - despite featuring a vastly more creative arena and arguably more interesting competitors, CATCHING FIRE's return to the games seemed lazy and rote, especially compared to the growing, largely unseen revolution brewing beyond the stadium.
On the other hand, the games imposed a ready-made narrative structure - from quell to scoring to the moment the tributes go all Supermarket Sweep on the cornucopia - that helped propel the earlier films along, even when themes got repetitive or characterization went flat.
MOCKINGJAY - PART 1, a half story with a full plate of characters, fumbles at a satisfying storytelling framework, clunking down a boring, disjointed opening leading to a center that doesn't quite hold. Though a violent war rages on between Snow and the proletariat prefectures that provide for Panem's infrastructure, much of the film is spent in a basement-like concrete bunker as the revolutionaries develop a Katniss-centric propaganda strategy to help fan the flames of revolution.
Katniss' job as badass pin-up girl of the rebellion comes complete with a new, dull and motivation-ambiguous entourage - tattooed director Cressida (Natalie Dormer), her assistant, Messala (Evan Ross), jarheaded Boggs (Mahershala Ali), and a pair of cameramen - who exist solely to cart the Mockingjay from one scene to the next.
In addition, all the familiar characters return - suddenly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), newly infantry chic Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and sad-eyed, tridentless Finnick (Sean Claflin) - to just sort of mill around at the margins of the revolution until Katniss needs one or two overwritten lines of encouragement.
The only Dictrict 12-ers to rebound in a big way are Katniss' sister Prim (Willow Shields), who, along with her big awesome cat, Buttercup, gets to essentially reenact a scene from ALIEN, and Katniss' old flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who features heavily in a third-act action sequence that offers the most thrillingly filmed setpiece of the series.
While the relationship of propagandists and their puppets is certainly an interesting topic around which to frame a war film (and one that, save for the the Fredrick Zoller / Nation's Pride storyline in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, hasn't been overtly explored in a blockbuster film since Verhoeven's satirical and madcap STARSHIP TROOPERS) MOCKINGJAY expends needless energy exhaustively vilifying Snow and his manipulation of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), when it ought to be exploring Katniss' new and tenuous relationship with Coin and her troops.
Despite MOCKINGJAY's failure to fully realize it, there's a lot of potential here: with the walls of the arena broken, the game - it's board expanded across 13 districts - continues. And Snow and Coin are deftly pushing their pieces. Though Katniss has fallen in with democracy's champions, complete with new battle armor that's a deep, smoky black to contrast the sterile, institutional white of the capital's stormtroopers, she remains a political pawn.
That the deft, insidious manipulation of this impassioned teenage girl is propagated by the ostensible good guys is dark, hefty stuff, and MOCKINGJAY never affords it the attention it deserves. Intent though it seems to be on exploring social upheaval, and the moral implications of insidiously weaponizing an individual's free will in the name of a society's freedom, all of the film's most bracing moments feature Panem's dispossessed workers waging guerilla attacks against government soldiers without any acknowledgement that the revolutionists are spilling blood, too.
Or that Snow's armies also have families.
Or that Katniss and Peeta aren't the only plastic totems being pushed from square to square.THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 was the first HUNGER GAMES film I entered without having read the book, and, despite a few moments of thrilling action, some genuinely rousing appearances by the ethereal four-note mockingjay whistle, and a fairly inconsequential scene that reminded me of ALIEN, I can't say I'm overly invigorated to rectify that in time for PART 2. (2 out of 4 stars)