Often, as movie franchises grow and age, creators feel the need to take their world and its stories in different directions in order to maintain a feeling of freshness. Sometimes (as with Aliens) this works perfectly, often times (a la the last two Die Hard sequels) it’s a huge mistake, and periodically it leaves audiences divided (Chronicles of Riddick, anyone?). With Mockingjay – Part One, the Hunger Games series joins the family of genre-hopping features and fortunately the results are mostly promising.
After the intense action of the first two films in which our heroine Katniss is forced to take part in Panem’s annual Hunger Games, Mockingjay occupies its time with the growing rebellion that was revealed in Catching Fire‘s final moments. While this would seem like the perfect setup to a thrilling action film – and certainly feels like it’s leading up to one when part two lands next year – this story delves deeply into the political arena of moves and counter moves between District 13 and the Capitol. Although it does have its moments of action, they are few and far between, leaving Mockingjay to play out more like an espionage thriller which may surprise fans of the previous two films who haven’t read the source material. Unlike in the arena, adversaries rarely meet face to face here – although we know that they will – and therein lies what may be the only pressing issue with Mockingjay: it’s a little too preoccupied with setting up the inevitable finale. Obviously, as with any film with “part one” in the title, we know that the story is building to something more, but Mockingjay sometimes feels like it’s making a meal out of smaller moments in order to leave enough for the finale to cover. The back-and-forth exchange of propaganda between the two sides feels slightly repetitive, especially in light of the more intense action scenes (a pivotal one in particular) that are largely glossed over.
However, that’s not to say that it doesn’t perform admirably. The third installment in the Hunger Games series shows that there is more to its mythos than just death matches and despite its more subtle subject matter it still moves quickly, feeling much shorter than its actual two hour run time (although that could be good or bad). A lot of what works in Mockingjay is thanks to its stellar cast; even more so as characters who were either underutilized or previously relegated to supporting roles take steps into the spotlight. While the story is still obviously Katniss-centric, and Jennifer Lawrence is still top-notch in the role, as the focus shifts away from the arena and its handful of competitors, a larger cast of characters is required and performers new and old are all up to the task. Elizabeth Banks absolutely kills it as Effie who, over the course of the series, has developed organically from a vapid PR representative into someone vulnerable, sympathetic, and surprisingly feisty and resourceful. Likewise, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch shows himself to be less than the expert craftsman he was in Catching Fire as he struggles to put together the disparate elements of Lawrence’s Katniss and newcomer Julianne Moore playing the pragmatic leader of the rebellion. Liam Hemsworth – whose character Gale has always disappeared in the previous two films, once they enter the Games – also proves to be a capable addition. However, the largest portion of praise should go to Josh Hutcherson who, despite being used only sparingly in Mockingjay delivers a captivating, and often times startling performance as he returns to the role of Peeta, elevating the character from Katniss’ love interest to a force to be reckoned with in his own right.
Although it is a step in a different direction than its predecessors, returning director Francis Lawrence ensures that that step is a positive one and that Mockingjay – Part One still feels very much a part of the Hunger Games series. While its status as a “Part One” somewhat necessitates that it often feels too much like preparation for a grand finale, it is no less an integral part of the series than the original or its followup. It’s comforting to know that Lawrence (the director), who was also responsible for Catching Fire – currently the best installment in the series – is at the helm for Mockingjay – Part Two, all but ensuring that when the series does come to a close that it will be in incredibly good hands. As for Mockingjay – Part One, it can stand on its own merits as a good addition to the franchise and should leave fans excited for the explosive conclusion. [7.5/10]