The contradiction at the heart of the Hunger Games stories is on full display in Mockingjay Part I, the third chapter of the movie tetralogy based on Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novels. The series chronicles a horribly destructive civil war taking place in a dystopic future in which a small class of hedonistic oligarchs subjugate, torture, and murder the citizenry at will. Yet the franchise’s essential appeal for many readers and viewers centers on a teenage love triangle, inarguably an issue of slighter moral and dramatic weight (unless, of course, you are a teenager).
Reconciling the puniness of Katniss Everdeen’s boyfriend dilemma with the scale of the political violence erupting around her was somehow less morally vexing in the first two chapters, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Perhaps that’s because Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her preternaturally loyal sweethearts, baker Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and game-tracker Gale (Liam Hemsworth) were the chief action protagonists of those films, responsible for using their skill and wit to survive. (Katniss and Peeta were trapped in a digital biodome and forced to—do we really need to go over the plot of The Hunger Games at this point?) In Mockingjay Part I, directed by Francis Lawrence from a screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, the symbolic wars of the Hunger Games—staged as cathartic spectacles for a depraved aristocracy—have given way to real war, state terror, and armed rebellion on a grand scale. It’s harder to care about the question of whether she’s just that into him (or him) when an entire hospital is full of wounded civilians are being firebombed.
Mockingjay Part I’s maundering pace may also be attributable to the fact that it’s only the first half of a two-part finale. Collins’ last book has been divided into two films, a choice increasingly common among studio heads dedicated to giving audiences additional time to say goodbye to beloved franchises (and themselves additional summer homes). It isn’t spoiling the ending to say that this slow-moving penultimate chapter comes to a jarring halt right in the middle of a climactic scene. The suddenness of this ending seems meant to leave the audience in a state of jangling suspense, but the vibe I sensed in the room after the cut to final credits was less “Whoa! Can’t wait till next year!” than “Well, that’s one place to randomly end things.”
But if Mockingjay’s placeholder status is a little too evident in its choppy, shapeless structure, this dark third chapter does have stretches of somber beauty. War and teenage angst make for uncomfortable narrative bedfellows, but at least the political violence that rips through the fictional country of Panem is neither glossed over nor trivialized. (The film is rated PG-13, but there are scenes of point-blank execution and mass slaughter that may be too upsetting even for some older children.) And Jennifer Lawrence is actress enough to invest even Katniss’ comparatively low-stakes struggle with some dramatic heft. It’s not Lawrence’s fault that the fierce Katniss is something of an oxygen-hogging drama queen, one of those fantasy-wish-fulfillment heroines (like Twilight’s Bella, another victim of franchise penultification) over whom the rest of the characters inexplicably fawn even when she’s at her most annoying.
As we begin, Katniss, who became a state-sanctioned national hero over the course of the first two films, has just escaped from the forces of the nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland, all but twisting a pinky at the corner of his lip). In an underground rebel hideout in District 13, the rebel organizer Alma Coin—Julianne Moore in ironed-straight silver hair, this year’s look for coolly benevolent dystopian leaderesses—is assembling a homegrown militia to take on the seemingly unstoppable forces of the Capitol. Coin, along with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—the head gamemaker turned chief strategist for the resistance—knows that Katniss, with her Panem-wide fame, photogenic face, and defiant nature, will make the ideal symbol for their rebellion. In a series of propaganda videos they release after hacking into the state television channel, Katniss becomes known (after the bird that came to stand for the secret rebellion in previous chapters) as “the Mockingjay.”
So the stage is set for a grand battle between the forces of repression and those of freedom—but you’ll need to wait a year for that battle to begin in earnest. With the exception of one spectacular attack on a Capitol dam (scored to an eerie faux-folk ballad sung by Lawrence and co-composed by Suzanne Collins herself), not much of military significance takes place in Mockingjay Part I. Instead, the characters all spend a great deal of time talking in small rooms in the bunkerlike rebel outpost, clad in matching olive-drab jumpsuits (to the horror of Effie Trinket, the Capitol fashionista turned political refugee played with sweet, campy pathos by Elizabeth Banks). Many of these conversations are about whether Katniss will agree to be the Mockingjay, and on what terms—she wants to secure the release of Peeta, who’s being held prisoner at the Capitol and groomed as a reality-TV star.
Mockingjay Part I might be charitably termed “workmanlike,” but that adjective has an honor to it when applied to a performer like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who turns the less-than-developed role of Heavensbee into a real character, a wily operative with a grudging respect for his stubborn, unmanageable charge. In a way, Lawrence’s performance in this series serves as a tribute to her late co-star; she’s becoming an actor who, as Hoffman could, elevates a run-of-the-mill blockbuster just by fully investing herself in the part. It’s only her ability to telegraph Katniss’ genuine horror at the suffering she witnesses that allows us to put up with this sometimes grating character’s incessant romantic waffling. “I can’t lose them both,” she sobs when both Gale and Peeta are in danger, and even though you can’t help feeling she kind of deserves to lose at least one of them, you find yourself rooting for the whole angsty trio to come back for one more crack at saving the world.