It's a solid entry in the series, and lays an intriguing foundation for Part 2, but on its own Mockingjay - Part 1 is rarely as entertaining or rewarding as its predecessors.
In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is still wrestling with the aftermath of the Quarter Quell - where some of her closest friends, including fellow District 12 champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), became prisoners of the Capitol. Aided by District 13 rebels, gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) rescued Katniss in the hope that she would be the face of a growing revolt against President Snow's tyranny over Panem. However, the fierce Hunger Games champion is crippled by self-doubt and fear for her lost friends.
With the fires of revolution burning around the country, District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) calls on Katniss to put aside her personal insecurities and look at the bigger picture - Panem is on the brink of civil war and sorely in need of inspiration. To help the cause and ensure Peeta's safety, Katniss agrees to become the "Mockingjay" - a symbol of hope and pride for the oppressed people of Panem. Yet, as the rebels prepare to battle the Capitol, in the hope of restoring freedom and equality to their lands, Katniss discovers that her choices are not without consequence, as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) will use every weapon at his disposal to maintain control of the government.
The first Hunger Games film, from writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), elevated the young adult adaptation genre with solid performances and an exciting post-apocalyptic story. Nevertheless, despite critical and commercial success, there was still plenty of room for improvement. For the sequel, Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) refined The Hunger Games film format, injecting subtle moments of grounded drama (rather than teen melodrama) that scored overwhelming praise from critics as well as a much broader film audience.
For the third installment, Lawrence returns (this time saddled with the challenge of splitting the original Mockingjay novel into two movies). The filmmaker approaches the two-piece finale with the same passion and sharp execution as his previous chapter, but ultimately Mockingjay - Part 1 presents more setup than entertaining payoff. It's a solid entry in the series, and lays an intriguing foundation for Part 2, but on its own Mockingjay - Part 1 is rarely as entertaining or rewarding as its predecessors.
Whereas The Hunger Games and Catching Fire both featured exciting and inventive third act arena battles and Mockingjay - Part 2 will depict a full-on war with the Capitol, Part 1 is stuck in an unfortunate middle ground. This time, the director is forced to pull action out of otherwise minor moments of unrest (and explosions) in the original book. It's a film where the central heroine spends the majority of her time learning and talking but rarely draws her longbow. For that reason, Mockingjay - Part 1 is an engaging look at the conflict between District 13 and the Capitol, as well as the everyday people caught in the crossfire, but simply does not include as much action (and overall theater-worthy entertainment value) as casual viewers likely expect.
That said, unlike some of its two-part YA movie competitors, most of Mockingjay - Part 1's runtime is essential to the overarching story plot. Given that The Hunger Games franchise is, above all else, a commentary on personal sacrifice in the face of fascism, the story has always made character development a central priority - while the teen-vs-teen arena battles contributed an exciting context for drama and action to blend. To that end, the Mockingjay story isn't drawn-out purely for the sake of making two movies, but Part 1 is still stuck with a tough narrative balance. It's the most meditative and outright expository episode in the series, offering intriguing background on key side characters and the full scope of President Snow's despotism, while relying on a few underwhelming (and downright brief) action set pieces that fall short of the intensity and excitement delivered in prior franchise battle sequences.
No doubt, Part 2 should flip the scale in the other direction, as the most action-packed Hunger Games installment, but without the luxury of watching both films back to back, Part 1 might be disappointing to watchers who are hoping for a self-contained experience. Nevertheless, as indicated, the new chapter is still an effective entry in the series - with another strong performance from Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. This round, the actress is tasked with responding to internal conflict rather than external threats - a worthwhile exploration of what makes Katniss a smart and inspiring leader outside of her skills with a bow. Even though her focus has shifted, Lawrence once again provides an emotional performance - one that also includes a few moments of meta-fun (where the Oscar winner gets to play with Katniss' discomfort and ineptitude as an actress).
Returning players like Harrelson, Hutcherson, and Elizabeth Banks are especially fascinating this round - since their characters are placed in drastically different circumstances for the Mockingjay story. Yet, in addition to established talent, including Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Liam Hemsworth, Jeffrey Wright, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, several Mockingjay - Part 1 newcomers are also given scenes in the spotlight - especially Moore, Mahershala Ali, and Natalie Dormer (portraying famed Capitol filmmaker-turned-rebel, Cressida). Moore in particular is interesting to watch - with a layered portrayal that highlights key thematic parallels between Katniss and the cold but determined President Coin.
Without question, Mockingjay - Part 1 is essential viewing for anyone that is already committed to The Hunger Games films. To his credit, Lawrence maintains the same high-quality character drama, sharp visuals, and emotional storytelling that helped Catching Fire transcend the young adult genre to become a cross-demographic hit. Still, as only Part 1 of its novel source material, the first Mockingjay installment suffers from the same challenges as previous YA adaptations that have elected to split their finales into two separate movie arcs. In the end, Mockingjay - Part 1 isn't an egregious cash-grab, but for viewers who want a full (and/or action-packed) film experience, the latest chapter is The Hunger Games quadrilogy could be slightly underwhelming. It doesn't just end on a cliff-hanger - the film just leaves us off in the middle of a story.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 runs 123 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material. Now playing in theaters.
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