The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 21, 2014

Jennifer Lawrence stars in 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1'
Jennifer Lawrence stars in 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1'  (Source:Lionsgate)

Revolutions, we find out in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1," succeed or fail based on one thing: The quality of your sound bites and propaganda advertisements.

To that end, of course, one must have the proper hair, makeup, and wardrobe. For Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the hero of the "Hunger Games" franchise, stirring line deliveries and telegenic sex appeal turn out to be a more difficult proposition than taking down bomber jets from the Capitol City; all you need for the latter is unflinching courage amidst a hail of large-caliber bullets and a well-aimed exploding arrow. The former requires a kind of showmanship and pumped-up glitz that she just doesn't have the cheesy mendacity to pull off.

Not that Katniss doesn't look super-fine in her custom-designed Rebel Girl duds; and not that she can't find the mot juste once her ire has been roused by, say, the destruction of a hospital full of wounded fighters and little kids, a fiery tableau framed and exploited with professional ťlan by Cressida (Natalie Dormer), yet another improbable refugee from the Capitol. Smoke and fire serving as her backdrop, Katniss lets loose: "If we burn," she seethes, glaring into the cameras sported by a pair of operators named, improbably, Castor (Wes Chatham) and Pollux (Elden Henson), "you burn!"

That slogan's not bad, as far as sound bites go, and we're destined to hear it again before the film is done. Not that it actually ends, mind you: Stirred as much by the bottom line as the dramatic arc, the studio has opted to chop the third book in the "Hunger Games" trilogy into two movies. The result, though it offers some amusing sequences and a couple of action sequences, is a story that's spread rather thinly.

To recap: Katniss and her love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are survivors of the annual "Hunger Games," a blood tribute exacted from each of the twelve districts of "Panem." (Imagine the United States after a century or so of steeping in untrammeled Free Market ideology: Workers are herded around by armed "peacekeepers" in the districts, while the elite live in luxury in the cosmopolitan Capitol, dressing like French aristocrats before the guillotines got busy.) Because Katniss and Peeta embarrassed the existing order -- and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), a sociopathic bully who delights in schemes and poisonings -- the powers that be subjected them, and a number of other champions of the Games, to a "Quarter Quell" rematch. This is kind of an All-Star edition of "Survivor," only literally. Cue the rebellion, and Katniss' rescue by the lingering remnants of the long-destroyed thirteenth district, who have forged an underground resistance. No, really. They live underground, in the sort of vast, subterranean city that seems to drive big move franchises to the point of claustrophobic derangement (a la "The Matrix" sequels).

Somehow, most of the main players from the first two films have found their way to District 13's cavernous lair. Formerly drunken Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is there, and drying out (booze is outlawed among District 13's regimented, militarized populace, which seems like a complete paradox, but there you go); Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' other boyfriend, has been rescued from District 12, along with Katniss' mother (Paula Malcomson) and little sister (Willow Shields); and fashionista / celebrity presenter Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is even on hand, making the best of her reduced circumstances (also making style statements with jumpsuits and towels).

What's missing is Peeta, who has fallen into President Snow's clutches. Mind games enthusiast that he is, Snow has turned Peeta into a poster boy for the Status Quo; the rebels, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a cipher named Plutarch Heavensbee), Jeffey Wright (as a tech wonk called Beetee), and Julianna Moore (as District 13 president Alma Coin, sporting a dreadful wig and worse contact lenses), wish to cast Katniss as the "Mockingjay," a messianic super-fighter and media star who will rouse the already-discontented masses to full-on fury and governmental overthrow. Both sides have carefully crafted their messages, their spin on recent events, and their attack ad strategies; at times, you're not sure whether this is a civil war in the making or just another election year. (Of course, you might say the same thing about real life these days.)

If the movie is slow and lacking in action, it compensates by being big and dramatic. Cities are destroyed; throngs are mowed down; huge rolling tears are shed, and teen hormones rage. Katniss is caught in the same three-body problem that adolescents on TV (and astronomers since the time of Newton) seem to wrestle with time and again: Into whose orbit is she going to fall? And, in the meantime, can catastrophic clashes and fall-aparts be averted? The movie relies a little heavily on Katniss' heartache. Time and again, she's ready to chuck the whole revolution thing (consigning the living to certain death, and the dead to irrelevance) because she can't, like, you know, deal? And, like, Boyfriend #1 is now a Tool of the State, while Boyfriend #2 is doing the whole passive-aggressive thing?

Luckily, President Snow is more or less a superannuated Mean Girl in his own right, and his provocations serve to draw Katniss out of her fits of dramatonia. Otherwise, we'd be faced with a prospect far grimmer than weary crowds cowed by gun-wielding thugs in white body armor, or luckless citizens reduced to smoldering cadavers in the streets. We'd be left with a sci-fi version of "Felicity."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.