The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 has only one major flaw, and it’s right there in the title.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Do you think that The Wachowskis and Quentin Tarantino ever regret splitting up The Matrix 2 and Kill Bill respectively? I mean, considering what it hath wrought on today’s blockbuster landscape where nothing ends anymore and everything is always building towards a thing that’s being held off until the next film. Were their various artistic decisions, driven by their split films being stylistically and distinctly different from one another – Kill Bill Vol. 1 being an action packed Asian-influenced martial arts flick and Vol. 2 being a slow-moving character-driven Spaghetti Western, whilst The Matrix Reloaded was the openly philosophical and purposefully cock-teasing one and The Matrix Revolutions was the sh*t one – now solely reduced to green money-shaped lights in hungry movie executives’ eyes?
In this recent wave of films that abuse an audience’s patience in order to swindle them out of more of their hard-earned cash, only Harry Potter has truly gotten it right. The Deathly Hallows films, overlong as they may be (which is a criticism you can apply to pretty much any Harry Potter film really), had two distinct parts. Part 1 was the slow-moving character piece, where the growing distance between the core trio was finally addressed head-on and done in such a way that it essentially completed the majority of their character arcs in time for the final film; ending on a solemn, downbeat note that re-enforces stakes and provides a vital character beat to send viewers home with. Part 2 is the glorious, excessive blow-out party celebrating the franchise’s existence that, quite honestly, it deserved and would have felt weird if it went out any other way. There’s a clear distinction.
Most films nowadays that do The Split, however, don’t craft two distinct parts. They don’t use this creative opportunity to tell a story that was simply too in-depth for a standard 2 hour 30 minute runtime, or to create two parts that stylistically and creatively do different things from one another. They just occur to make some cold hard cash, and the films suffer majorly from the bloat and lack of any real satisfying closure at the end of Part 1. Twilight did it. The Hobbit did it. Divergent is doing it – which amazes me as there was barely enough material in the first frickin’ film. The Maze Runner is going to do it and you are deluding yourself if you believe otherwise. And, now, The Hunger Games has done it.
Quite honestly, the Part 1 segment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 title is the best and worst thing about the film. See, I have been of the opinion that prior Hunger Games movies are always two-thirds of an outstanding movie, and one-third of a really good but relatively uninteresting movie. That one-third, surprisingly, has always been the Games part. They’re not bad, they’re just incredibly perfunctory and uninteresting compared to the non-Games stuff: the propaganda, the class warfare, the media satirising, the emotional state of Katniss who is one of the most dynamic and interesting lead characters I have seen in a franchise in a long while, oppressive governments… all that stuff, and The Games just got in the way of that.
Mockingjay, Part 1 dispenses with them entirely. Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) breaking of the 75th Hunger Games ended up being the spark that lit the powder-keg and now a full-on revolution has broken out in Panem. The despotic head of The Capital, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), has razed her home, District 12, to the ground, its streets lined with the rotting skeletons of those caught in its bomb blasts, whilst Katniss herself has been “rescued” by District 13, long thought to have disappeared. Its leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore) with the help of Plutarch Heavensbee (the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman), wants to mould Katniss into a symbol of hope for the revelation, to rally all of the Districts around for a full-scale invasion of The Capital, but Katniss wants absolutely nothing to do with it – only wishing to be reunited with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been captured by The Capital to act as the figurehead for their side of the war.
And that is pretty much Mockingjay, Part 1; two hours of moving characters into place for Part 2 where everything will likely pay off with lots of explosions. That sounds bad on paper, but in actuality this breathing room allows the film to really dig deep into the stuff I mentioned that I loved earlier. The main thrust of the film comes from Katniss slowly but surely, and even a tinge regretfully, coming into and accepting the role of the symbol of the revolution, but it’s not something she immediately hops on board with – she spends a good stretch of the film just begging to be let out and for them to rescue Peeta so that she and him can just sequester themselves away from the mess she inadvertently caused.
It’s a completely understandable viewpoint, too. Katniss is basically broken by this point – having been thrown into the Games twice, shoved into the public spotlight and being constantly reminded of the horrors she has unwittingly caused at every turn. It makes sense that she latches onto Peeta and a desire to run away and just be happy; the poor girl deserves it. But she can’t, she could never, and the film goes to great lengths to show that her eventual embracing of her position is just as much, if not more so, down to her strength of character when the chips are down as it is the propaganda folk carefully manoeuvring her into position behind-the-scenes. This means that she flip-flops constantly, but it comes across in a believable way instead of mere padding.
Credit can go to Danny Strong and Peter Craig’s screenplay for this, but the plaudits should mostly be thrown the way of Jennifer Lawrence. The series is pretty much The Jennifer Lawrence Show anyway, due to the narrative’s hyper-specific focus on Katniss, but such an observation is more of a compliment when you consider just how good she is. Much of Katniss’ PTSD and completely frazzled emotional state is left as subtext – or possibly been cut for time, I haven’t read the books so I don’t know – but Lawrence hones in on it and just runs with it. She keeps finding new spins on Katniss’ icy demeanour, her emotional distress, the heartbreak that Katniss suffers whenever The Capital drags up Peeta to, essentially, taunt her that the film never feels like it’s going round in circles. And when she gets big showy material – like a rousing speech for District 8 that reads as utterly ridiculous on paper – she knocks it out of the park and elevates it significantly.
Mind you, the film is almost stolen out from under her by, who else, Philip Seymour Hoffman who essentially gets to defiantly answer those of us who went “Well, why would you cast the incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role that looks that minor and inconsequential?” in Catching Fire with a firm and defiant “THAT’S why!” As is the usual case for a lot of his best roles, Hoffman plays Heavensbee very understatedly, as the guy who prefers to blend into the background and say the right things at the right time, rather than openly standing forward and controlling the scene – which is what ends up happening to Hoffman, too. He commands one’s attention purely by saying the right things at the right time and knowing when to cede the spotlight back to everyone else. As final performances go, it’s obviously not up there with his turn in A Most Wanted Man from earlier this year – because it’s not trying to be – but it’s the kind of performance that reminds me of just how much talent this guy had and how much of a shame it is that we lost him so soon.
It probably also helps that the propaganda stuff that Plutarch is helping mastermind is the best part of the film by a good country mile. Action is minimised significantly in Mockingjay, Part 1 which ends up emphasising how important aesthetics and propaganda are to a successful military effort, and the battle of the propaganda between District 13 and The Capital, each represented by one half of the series’ end-game couple for extra dramatic weight, ends up as the thematic thrust of the film. The scenes of Haymitch, Effie, Plutarch, and Coin brainstorming ways in which to present Katniss as a fitting hero for the revolution – noting her hard-to-like uncut self as deadly in the game of propaganda – carries a lot of parallels towards the modern celebrity PR machine that are especially fitting considering the actress playing Katniss. Whilst Peeta’s scenes at The Capital, primarily being interviewed in a very leading fashion by Caesar Flickerman, recall similar style interviews on talk shows and such.
It’s that depth – seriously, the film really goes hard for this concept, I’m not doing it justice – thematically that has always made The Hunger Games stand out from the pack and a full film based on that really is as good as it sounds. Yes, I wish that I got to see more of the actual revolution ongoing in order to better contextualise District 13’s struggle, but that only reinforces how little the actual fighting matters in the game of war and would also take away from Katniss’ story. Yes, I wish that characters like Effie got a more expanded screen-time to better integrate themselves into the story, but that’s the sort of thing that Part 2 could pay off. I even found the film to be incredibly well-paced, the two hours just breezing by!
Then, at two hours, Mockingjay, Part 1 stops.
It just stops. It smash cuts to credits, shouts “Right, that’s your lot! Get out!” and then forcibly removes you from the theatre. There is a cliffhanger, but it’s not a great one. To put it another way: Catching Fire’s cliffhanger felt like an exclamation point. The adventures of Katniss Everdeen clearly weren’t done, but the story there clearly was – coming to a halt by following through on President Snow’s promise to destroy her life if she continued to rebel. It makes sense as a stopping point. Mockingjay, Part 1’s cliffhanger is like if the author telling you the story had been shot halfway through and you had to wait a year for them to come out of their coma. Oh, and you need to pay another £10 for the privilege of hearing them finish the story because they conveniently forgot that you already paid them once before.
There’s no closure, no sense that this is where we get off, no satisfaction. Just blue balls and a whole lot of withholding. I don’t feel like I’ve seen a full movie, I feel like I’ve seen two-thirds of a movie and somebody’s misplaced the final reel. It’s especially troubling and irritating because the film that Part 1 is setting Part 2 up to be – a big action blow-out where stuff goes bang – is not the film that I want to see. It’s the film that I could not be less interested in seeing. This, quite simply, should have been one three-hour movie. Cut a few scenes from Part 1, scale down what would be Part 2 into that third hour, and you would have a film that more than likely would have been excellent and a fantastic send-off for the franchise.
Instead, Lionsgate have near-fatally kneecapped The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 to be able to double their goes at the money pump. I love the film that I have – I really, really do; I think it’s outstanding – but I haven’t got a full film. I’ve gotten two-thirds of a full film, and that fact is why my dissatisfaction and personal lack of closure is only festering and growing with time. If Mockingjay, Part 2 does, in fact, have so much quality material and stuff to fill both of the hours that it is going to take up, and pays off everything in this film spectacularly and moves me to tears, then I will take back all of these negative thoughts and worship at the series’ altar. However, I have the feeling that even a transcendental Part 2 will not make up for a film that’s not finished and a conclusion that
Callum Petch is not in the swing of things yet. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!