By Preston Wilder
Fans won’t appreciate my saying this, but the best thing about the new Hunger Games is that it has no Hunger Games. The centre-piece/trademark of this Young Adult franchise never made much sense to me – the Games are meant to be a punishment, cowing the populace into submission, yet the participants become celebrities? what’s up with that? – and always seemed too perfunctory to be very exciting (it’s been said a million times before, but watch the Japanese film Battle Royale to see this concept done properly). The fact that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) doesn’t have to venture into the arena in this new instalment is cause for mild celebration.
Not that anyone in the film feels like celebrating. Mockingjay is a moody, murky movie, much of it set in the dim, underlit underground bunkers where President Coin (Julianne Moore) is plotting revolution against the Capitol. It’s also, of course, ‘Part 1’ – an example of that weird symbiosis (see also Harry Potter and Twilight) where fans happily pay twice for the same product, with the added inconvenience of having to wait a year to see how the story plays out. For all the talk about movies becoming extinct in the Age of TV, Hollywood’s never going to go out of business with such accommodating audiences.
Not much happens in Part 1; there’s an air raid, and a dam is blown up by the rebels, but the serious action is clearly being saved for Part 2 in 2015 (the two films were made simultaneously, which is why the late Philip Seymour Hoffman will appear in both). This is actually an advantage, allowing for pleasures beyond plot and action: Part 1 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had some lovely character stuff, like the bit where Harry and Hermione slow-danced (Part 2 was just boring resolution), while Part 1 of Breaking Dawn veered into startling weirdness (remember the blood milkshake?) before Bella duly led the vampires into battle in Part 2. Katniss too will presumably lead the rebels into battle next November – but first here are two hours of build-up, which translates into underground bunkers, gloomy youngsters (“I wish they were all dead, and we were too,” says Katniss’s pal Finnick before we even get to the opening title), a few fiery speeches and of course Peeta, that obscure object of desire.
Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being held by the Capitol, who use him for propaganda; Katniss, as already mentioned, is with the rebels, who use her in their own so-called “propos”. She’s the Mockingjay, a symbol of revolution – but carries a torch for Peeta, refusing to believe he’s a traitor (“You have no idea what he’s going through,” she tells Coin and the others). This franchise has always been intrigued by celebrity culture, and it’s here too: Katniss is like Princess Diana, visiting hospitals and easing the pain of the wounded by sheer force of presence (“I can’t help them!” she protests; “Just let them see your face,” comes the reply). There’s a certain satirical undertow to Katniss and Peeta as video stars – so much for ‘The revolution will not be televised’ – their celebrity both a weapon and a trap. It’s also unexpected (for someone who hasn’t read the books) that the rebels are far from sympathetic: Coin is chilly and joyless, her vaguely socialist, power-to-the-people agenda coming off puritanical (alcohol is forbidden) and oppressive. “Individuals don’t make demands,” she replies coldly when our heroine seeks to negotiate.
Where’s all this going? In a way, the outcome is obvious: Katniss is being used by the rebels just as she was previously used by the Capitol – as a symbol, in both cases – and must surely find Empowerment in the final chapter, much like Bella in Twilight. Then there’s the Peeta situation, which seems poised for a painful emotional payoff (will he betray her? or is Katniss’ faith justified?) then goes in an exciting new direction right at the end of the movie.
Mockingjay, Part 1 doesn’t go nuts like its Twilight equivalent, or wallow in character detail like Harry Potter – a reflection of how skin-deep the characters are in this franchise – nor am I convinced that Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress, at least in the clenched, steely mode she favours for Katniss (it was quite a shock to see her loosen up and actually have some fun in American Hustle). There’s a solid, weighty feel to the movie, and I did like Jeffrey Wright as a ‘Q’ figure showing off his weaponry – “Regular, incendiary and explosive arrows! All colour-coded!” – but this overlong non-climax mostly comes off drab and creaky, looking ahead to next year when the Games can (finally) begin. “I never asked for this,” says Katniss, unimpressed with her Mockingjay status. We never asked for a four-hour final chapter, but here it is anyway.
DIRECTED BY Francis Lawrence
STARRING Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson
US 2014 123 mins.