'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' review: this is how a revolution dies

It's hard to make a blockbuster about a hero of non-action

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a film that delivers on its premise far too well.

Set directly after The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Mockingjay follows Katniss Everdeen once she’s managed to escape the sugar-coated oppression of Panem, a post-apocalyptic America where she’s been repeatedly forced to compete in child-murder tournaments dressed up as beauty pageants. At the beginning of the film, she’s been hidden in the secret, highly militarized underground society of long-lost District 13. Unsurprisingly, a reality TV star and revolutionary figurehead suddenly exiled to the sidelines of a budding rebellion can’t do very much. And even less surprisingly, it’s hard to make a good blockbuster about a hero being virtually useless.

Mockingjay was easily the weakest book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, so it’s not really fair to blame the actors and filmmakers for all its shortcomings. If nothing else, they’ve made most of the characters more likeable. But they’re the ones responsible for splitting an already slow book into two films (Part 2 premieres next year), and there’s no conceivable reason to do so besides inflating box-office revenue. This is especially true when its basic structure stops the cast and crew from playing to their strengths. Panem’s colorful Capitol and the artificial Hunger Games arenas gave designers in the first two films carte blanche to create some of the most beautiful sci-fi environments of this decade, and the whole thing was wrapped in a clever parody of media-saturated modern culture.

Mockingjay, by contrast, is gray and meandering, often visually indistinguishable from any number of other dystopias. Its most over-the-top recurring characters, like ageless Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman, are limited to somberly discussing the conflict, and its new ones don’t do much more than hold cameras. There’s something potentially interesting in this contrast between the civil war and Capitol business as usual, but played out, it just feels like a missed opportunity. And the media bombast, which is far tamer and more conventional this time around, is both less entertaining and less believable as effective propaganda.

'Mockingjay' is stuck pretending that Katniss is more exciting than the revolution

Forcing Katniss to confront her own limits didn’t have to be a bad thing. While she’s the prototypical young adult tough girl — rebellious, self-sufficient, and handy with a bow and arrow — the series usually avoids the easy path of contrasting her against "weak" traditional femininity or flattening her emotions. Her allies’ success at manipulating the gossip machine of Panem’s decadent Capitol is as important as her own success in battle, and she’s openly reliant on her nurturing younger sister Prim. Now too important to join the fighting as more than a publicity stunt, she’s left making videos to inspire the Panem rebels, unable to even save her friend and love interest Peeta, who was captured at the end of the last film.

But this is an action franchise, so Mockingjay is stuck having to pretend that her frustrated impotence is more exciting than the real, massive uprising that’s going on everywhere else. The filmmakers do this by looking at war through the lens of propaganda, which provided great momentum for Catching Fire. Resistance through media works in the world of Panem, where Katniss and the people around her manage to turn everything from talk show narratives to haute couture into a weapon against the Capitol. Unfortunately, it’s a theme that just doesn’t fit Mockingjay. Subverting pop culture is a tool of the powerless, which Katniss now emphatically isn’t — she’s living in a heavily fortified bunker full of missiles and fighter planes.

Mockingjay

There are still a few satisfying moments, like the series’ dryly hilarious battle makeovers: characters pore over a top-secret fashion sketch like it’s the plans for an enemy base, then go test the deadly capabilities of their made-for-TV weapons. Overall, though, it’s just tedious watching District 13’s leadership brainstorm video pitches on a futuristic whiteboard. One of the subtle running themes, evoked more clearly in the novels, is that District 13 is in its way as corrupt and shallow as the Capitol, obsessed with photo ops and procedure instead of principles or effective tactics. The Hunger Games franchise is unique because of how well it understands the power of images and pop culture, but it’s also incapable of breaking out of the larger narrative that pervades young adult literature and, ironically, Hollywood: that mass culture is inherently vapid and artificial, to be participated in only unwillingly or with a knowing roll of the eyes. In Mockingjay, it comes off as knee-jerk cynicism, poisoning the genuinely emotional scenes.

Making it the focus of the story is also a strange choice, given that Mockingjay is both larger in scope and markedly grimmer than its predecessors. The titular Hunger Games don’t appear, so there’s no veneer of fantasy or high technology left to cast over the film’s copious (albeit bloodless) violence, just hospital bombings and summary executions all the way down. When it wants to — which, sadly, is not very often — the film can deliver a gorgeous, adrenaline-fueled action scene. And Donald Sutherland’s President Snow remains a dark, if sadly underused, villain, a grandfatherly sociopath who always seems one step ahead of the protagonists’ carefully drawn plans.

More bow, less camera

Usually, though, Katniss and the whole of District 13 are reduced to Zapp Brannigan-esque posturing, urging Panem’s rebels to wage guerrilla skirmishes that are effectively mass suicides. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a mysterious mastermind in Catching Fire, projects mildly irritated boredom as the second-in-command of District 13. Katniss’ long-time mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) has gone from guilt-ridden drunk to sober PR rep. The only real exceptions to this are effete Capitol lackey Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and fellow Hunger Games survivor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) — the former is delightfully hammy and the latter charmingly vulnerable, and they’re both given small but meaningful character arcs.

The most positive interpretation of Mockingjay is that it’s a daring postmodern step past simple satire of the reality TV-loving masses. Katniss was a hero of action in The Hunger Games, taking her sister’s place in the Games and manipulating the Capitol into changing the rules to save her. She was a hero of reaction in Catching Fire, unwittingly playing out her part in a larger scheme. Now, Mockingjay is creating its own version of David Foster Wallace’s hero of non-action in Infinite Jest: not a character "beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus" but one that genuinely has no existence or effect beyond her appearance on a screen within a screen. A character who, after years of manipulating her appearance, has actually started to become television.

Unfortunately, I never bothered to finish Infinite Jest. So I hope the second half of Mockingjay spends more time with her behind a bow again, not in front of a camera.