The trend for splitting youth-oriented book adaptations like this one into two (or more) money-spinning parts usually backfires, and the cumbersomely-titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I is sadly not an exception to the rule: it’s a bland set-up for a forthcoming finale, and director Francis Lawrence makes the mistake of treating heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) like a spare part for much of it. Where the Battle Royale-lite of the first two films ensured that Katniss was running, jumping and shooting her way through the cruel annual spectacle of the Hunger Games, here – as an important propaganda tool in a revolution – her safety is paramount and she barely fires an arrow in anger. This is the Hunger Games film in which Katniss watches TV monitors from the heart of a giant bunker.
Granted three films’ worth of teen-warrior-on-teen-warrior battling would have been a stretch, but for a blockbuster series that has been fairly reliant on action to date this third entry sadly goes too far the other way: it is surprisingly slow going and during the numerous meetings and the numerous debates and the numerous rousing speeches I longed to see a glimpse of a few pumped-up characters racing each other toward a weapons cache. Little of note happens during the first 45 minutes of Mockingjay – Part I, because due to the expansion of the cast in 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire there are certain obligations toward the characters played by Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and checking in on each feels like an exercise in box-ticking. During this opening act Juliette Lewis is introduced as Alma Coin, the resistance leader going toe-to-toe with Donald Sutherland’s supposedly-ruthless dictator President Snow (a dull villain, a talking-head who is always far from the action), while Natalie Dormer and Mahershala Ali also take on minor roles. And naturally we spend plenty of time catching up with Katniss, who is now hiding out with the resistance in District 13, along with various other cohorts: Elizabeth Banks’ stylist Effie, Woody Harrelson’s now-sober Haymitch and Liam Hemsworth’s bland love interest Gale.
Competing for Katniss’s affection, as always, is the equally dull Soppy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), also a propaganda tool (albeit one being used in Snow’s totalitarian Capitol). The screenplay by Danny Strong and Peter Craig cleverly highlights the similarities between the two factions through the use of the two star Hunger Games assets; indeed Katniss’s value to the resistance means that she is treated in a way that is not dissimilar to the way she was treated by President Snow in the earlier films. The power of the media in the hands of politicians, and the value of the patronage of celebrities, has been a feature throughout the series and it continues to be so here. Does Mockingjay – Part I offer any new insight into the process of spin or the use of propaganda? Well, not really, but at least it does mean that Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, an advocator of such tools, features heavily.
It’s rare for a blockbuster to be so hesitant in terms of action, but Lawrence seems keen to exercise restraint at all times. When a daring rescue mission takes place near the end, for example, the action doesn’t follow the crack squad of rescuers around the Capitol (which includes, among others, Bland Gale) but instead concentrates on yet another tête-à-tête between Everdeen and Snow, the likes of which we’ve seen several times before. I’m tempted to bow out now, but given that there’s only one film left in this series of adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books it seems a little pointless not to hang around until the bitter end. At least more action is promised for the final installment, which may go some way towards making up for this dreary two hour exercise in water-treading.
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Danny Strong, Peter Craig. Based on Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci.
Cinematography: Jo Willems.
Editing: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Running Time: 122 minutes.