The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) tells the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the girl on fire, who has been thrown into the middle of a civil war, reluctantly becoming a symbol of hope for the rebels against the Capitol, who have taken her friend/potential lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Forced to present video commentary on the escalating war, Katniss must deal with her need to be a symbol of hope and her conflicting desire to save Peeta, who becomes a similar symbol of resistance for the Capitol.
After an incredibly ponderous first act (needed to stretch one film into two, as is often the case to pad pockets with franchises nowadays), the film picks up somewhat, but holds back for the final film. The viewer is always kept at a distance from the juiciest part of the story: what it is like living in war-torn districts split between loyalists and freedom fighters. Knowing that there is a conflict out in the world, but barely ever able to see it (even if that is how it is in the books) makes the film feel less emotionally engaging. Withholding conflict may have been an attempt at a friendlier rating as well, but even hints of action could have sufficed.
Katniss is often not a driving force in the narrative, the events of the plot usually happening around her and without her involvement. This again makes the drama much less engaging without an emotional stake in our protagonist. Contradicting the source material, Katniss should be deep in the conflict, fighting (shown briefly in the film, but needing to be much longer) against government troops (perhaps defending her sister or mother), trying to figure out what she can do to save Peeta and putting her life on the line against the wishes of the rebel leadership. Keeping her on the sidelines while all the action takes place independent of her makes the film slog along. Even the conclusion, a rescue operation, features Katniss in the safety of the compound watching the raid take place, a perfect moment for her to sneak away and try to save Peeta on her own. Prose is a very different medium than film and changing from one form to another, while risky with a massively popular franchise, is necessary more often than not.
“The Hunger Games” films have always been commentaries on our cultures, our views of entertainment and celebrities and revolutions. While the film alludes to the modern uprisings in the world today, it could have gone so much deeper into relevant social issues. There is a sequence where a group of rebels sacrifice themselves to deliver bombs to a water dam, destroying the Capitol’s water and electricity. It is a thrilling sequence, one of the few in the film, and brings to mind the protesters in Egypt and Iran and Tienanmen Square. More sequences such as this one, showing sacrifice, desperation and the oppressive will of a cruel regime would have really added spice to the story and given even more self-reflection for our current times. Instead, we are left with more shots of Katniss wondering what to do and hunting in the woods.
It is also disconcerting to see what the filmmakers have done with Katniss’ character. In the first two films, she is very strong, volunteering to take her sister’s place in the games, mournfully burying Rue but keeping herself together, arm twisting Haymitch into agreeing to go into the games for Peeta if it comes to it. Here, she is left on the sidelines, an emotional wreck, wondering what is happening to her “boyfriend” while flirting with another man, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Wondering if she has lost both Gale and Peeta, she breaks down crying and has to be comforted by Haymitch. As she sobs in a man’s arms, the strong heroine the audience is accustomed to withers a bit, replaced by a depressed woman who suffers from nightmares, crying, sitting on the sidelines while men carry out the action. The filmmakers seem to have lost their grasp on what made Katniss so important in action films today.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is not a bad film, but an incomplete one, just hitting the necessary beats of the story without much flair or excitement. This entry is more of a snoozefest than an action winner.