A film review by Craig J. Koban November 29, 2014 



2014, PG-13, 123 mins.


Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen  /  Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark  /  Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne  /  Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy  /  Donald Sutherland as President Snow  /  Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee  /  Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin  /  Willow Shields as Primrose Everdeen  /  Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair  /  Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket  /  Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Boggs  /  Robert Knepper as Antonius  /  Lily Rabe as Commander Lyme  /  Evan Ross as Messalla  /  Jeffrey Wright as Beetee  /  Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman  /  Toby Jones as Claudius Templesmith  /  Jena Malone as Johanna Mason

Directed by Francis Lawrence  /  Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong  /  Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

I was a rather reluctant fan of THE HUNGER GAMES right from the beginning.  The first film – based on Suzanne Collins’ massively popular novels - felt like it borrowed a bit too heavily from the standard troupes of other better post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi genre efforts.  It also seemed to adhere to the obligatory conventions of young adult fiction.  

Yet, I was still won over by the empowered presence of Jennifer Lawrence in the film, and its follow-up entry, 2013’s CATCHING FIRE, was one of the best pure sequels of recent memory in how it expanded upon the first film’s themes and narrative.  Now comes MOCKINGJAY - PART 1, and even though it represents an alarmingly frustrating new Hollywood trend (taking what should be one part and stretching it into two; two films make more money than one, after all), it nonetheless represents yet another solid and involving entry in the coming-of-age saga of Katniss Everdeen. 

MOCKINGJAY - PART 1, much like CATCHING FIRE, does what good stand-alone sequels should do: it expands upon and advances the franchise’s storyline and themes while introducing new characters and elements of intrigue (granted, being part 1 of 2, the resulting film certainly lacks a clear-cut beginning, middle, and ending).  Where it lacks in overall plot structure it more than makes up for it in terms of immersion: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1, compellingly enough, does not actually contain a Hunger Games in it (the gladiatorial contest to the death pitting young people from the impoverished districts of what remains of futuristic America for the petty amusement of the affluent people of the Capital).  Instead, the film takes us deep underground to a vast and elaborate bunker of what remains of District 13, where a series of insurgents and rebels plot their next move to wage a revolt against the dictatorial Capital.  At the heart of it all is Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who faces a different type of pressure this time: In the past she simply had to survive The Hunger Games, but now she has to decide whether to become a Che Guevara-like freedom fighter symbol to lead the charge of her people. 



MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 returns us to the world of Panem and takes place immediately after the events of CATCHING FIRE, during which time Katniss had survived her second games, but was rescued by a bad of rebels that revealed to her – in a wonderful cliffhanger ending – that her home district had been bombed to rubble by the nefarious President Snow (a quietly ruthless Donald Sutherland).  Traumatized by both the games and whether or not her childhood friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is still alive, Katniss struggles to acclimatize herself to her new underground surroundings, which is populated by military leaders, politicians, and what’s left of her fellow district citizens.  Katniss meets the district president Coin (Julianne Moore, a stern and stoic, and commanding presence here) and her right hand man Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who wishes to recruit Katniss for the purposes of transforming her into a rallying symbol – “The Mockingjay” - for her people to convince them of the worthiness of a rebellion against Snow.   

Katniss, however, has no real interest in conceding to Coin and Plutarch’s demands, but she eventually acquiesces and makes a counter-proposal: She will become The Mockingjay, but only if the president wages a rescue mission to secure Peeta – whom is revealed to be alive and is now making pro-Capital news segments (perhaps under duress or perhaps on his own volition) – and demands that he receives a full pardon.  The president agrees, but the journey of Katniss to become the de facto leader of a rebellion is a troubled one, especially considering the limitless military might that President Snow possesses.  That, and Katniss' affection for Peeta – someone that may or may not be a traitor – seems to be clouding her judgment along the way. 

One of the more admirable traits about MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 is how little action there is in it.  It’s more of a moody and contemplative character and thematic driven example of sci-fi than its predecessors.  The most fascinating aspect of the film is how in hones in on the nature of propaganda and how it’s envisioned, cultivated, created, and released to the masses – by both good and evil forces – for the purposes of quickly swaying public opinion.  Both Snow and Katniss’ forces wage a cerebral war of information and misinformation throughout MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 and the film’s alluring undercurrent is how it abandons the first two films’ satirical look at televised violence and instead engages in a fairly thoughtful exploration of the nature of political imagery and symbols.  Good sci-fi works as a swift allegory of today’s uneasy concerns and problems, and MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 is highly effective in this regard. 

I also appreciated the overall change of scenery in this installment.  Back in the director’s chair is Francis Lawrence (who made CATCHING FIRE and replaced THE HUNGER GAMES’ Gary Ross, a great director that was frankly overwhelmed by the material) who commands himself nicely with giving MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 a strong sense of geographical newness.  The first two films were outdoors and captured the primal fears of jungle combat, whereas this film highlights the dark, dingy, and claustrophobic interiors of the underground bunker District life, which helps highlight the bleakness and despair of its denizens attempting to wage a war on a nearly unstoppable super power.  MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 – perhaps more so than the previous HUNGER GAMES films and other young adult adaptations in general – is a decidedly darker and more nihilistic endeavor.  You can sense the demoralized state of the heroes and the all-powerful clutches of Snow beating them down into near-submission.  Sutherland’s Snow was, early in the series, kind of a vague abstraction as far as villains go, but now he’s fully emerged as a sinister figure of genocidal corruption. 

MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 is, of course, always enthralling on a dramatic level because of the strapping and charismatic presence of Jennifer Lawrence at the helm; she’s kind of the emotional glue by which all of the other performance dominos fall in place behind her (series regulars Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson return in brief, but assured supporting turns that compliment the empowered trifecta of Lawrence, Hoffman, and Moore).  Lawrence seems to effortlessly suggest Katniss as a woman of headstrong conviction and deep emotional uncertainty throughout this entire series, which helps ground even some of the more outlandish flights of fancy the films take.  That, and Katniss occupies a whole other echelon of worthy hero worship when compared to her other young adult fiction cousins.  Bella Swan in TWILIGHT, for example, was a sullen and moody boy tease whose biggest dilemma in life was which boy she would end up with.  Katniss, by direct comparison, has to decide whether to live – and perhaps die as a martyr – to secure the freedom and way of life for her enslaved people.  See the difference? 

MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 suffers from the same fate as other recent film franchises that feel the need to break up one part into multiple installments.  As stated, the overall plot here lacks a sense organization and, for that matter, seems to just abruptly end in the middle of a scene as opposed to simply having a well conceived third act and sense of closure that leads into the continuation of the story.  The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, Liam Hemsworth’s Gale (arguably the blandest and least interesting character in the entire series) seems even less consequential this go-around.  Thankfully, the film never dwells on this for too long, as it wisely knows that the overall story now is more entrenched in the plight of Katniss and her people in staging an improbably difficult uprising.  MOCKINGKAY – PART 1, despite some hiccups, fully materializes as another moody, gripping, and resoundingly well acted sequel to a series that, frankly, started on shaky ground.  

And how many great science fiction franchises are out there that are held together by the presence of a wonderfully conceived female protagonist? 

Not many.        


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