Pardon this turkey
Reviewing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a bit like reviewing a preview trailer. The movie is a cheat. In fact, it’s not really a movie at all; it’s a two-hour lead-in to the real movie, which won’t be rolling into theaters for another year. It’s like that old riddle: How do you keep a turkey in suspense? I’ll tell you next November.
Mockingjay Part 1 is based on the first half—actually, more like the first quarter—of the last volume of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued at the end of Catching Fire and spirited away to the secret depths of District 13, which was supposedly wiped out in the previous rebellion but has merely been forced underground. There, under the leadership of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), District 13 plots to continue and expand the rebellion that they never considered lost.
President Coin and her underling, the former Hunger Games chief Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), try to induce Katniss to become the face of their revolution against the Capital and the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland) by making a series of propaganda videos, or “propos.” At first she refuses, but when she sees how her friend and supposed lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), left behind in the Capital, has been persuaded (or tortured) into making propos of his own against her, she changes her mind.
This brings us to the best scene in this stunted little blockbuster, as Katniss is stage-managed in her first propo, outfitted for war in front of a phony backdrop and given a rousing speech to stir up the spirit of revolt. She’s terrible, as fake as the computer-generated scene behind her. Plutarch carefully coaches her, she tries again— and is even worse.
Then later, on an outing with a camera crew to another district, Katniss witnesses the atrocities committed by Snow’s stormtroopers. Moved to defiant rage, Katniss speaks—shouts—from her heart, giving Coin and Plutarch exactly the kind of propo they were looking for. (Here, too, we get the full measure of Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliance: She’s such a great actress that she can play somebody who can’t act, who can only be real.)
As with the first picture in the series, Jennifer Lawrence saves Mockingjay Part 1, but for a different reason. The Hunger Games was poorly written and directed even more poorly by the appalling Gary Ross; Lawrence alone made it worth watching. Here she has a much better director—Francis Lawrence (no relation), who took over the reins with 2013’s Catching Fire—but an even weaker script by Peter Craig and Danny Strong (Suzanne Collins is credited with the “adaptation,” but that seems to have been simply a matter of deciding where to put the break for next year’s Mockingjay Part 2). Craig and Strong can’t really be blamed; once the decision was made to expand Mockingjay into two movies—a lamentable trend pioneered by the Harry Potter movies—there wasn’t much they could do. Part 1 is too sluggish and uneventful to sustain even its fairly modest two hours; it’s just a lot of scenes of people in drab clothes sitting around tables talking, punctuated by a couple of well-staged but too-brief action scenes. Most of the action and character development—not to mention, of course, the story’s final, haunted resolution—won’t hit the screen until next year.
And why is that? Because Mockingjay the novel is so complex that it called for extended treatment? Not at all; the book might well have made a riveting three-hour movie. Collins’ (and Lawrence’s) fans are being made to wait simply so that the gang at Lionsgate and Color Force can squeeze another $600 million out of the franchise—and, not incidentally, another picture out of Jennifer Lawrence at the bargain price they paid when they first signed her, before she won an Oscar and showed the depth, range and value of her talent.
The fans probably won’t mind. But they wouldn’t miss much if they saved their money and waited a year for Part 2. In Mockingjay Part 1, the ones who are being mocked are the audience.