The thing about splitting the end of a trilogy into two movies—the modern, assuredly money-making trend in adapting novels into cinematic franchises—is that movie one is always the less-satisfying part of an arc. Exposition gets drawn out for a payoff that will only come in another movie, a year on down the road. And so it is with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One: the scenario hints at what’s to come, and characters position themselves toward a grand, climactic finale. But, as a film, it offers more drudgery and looping exposition than stand-alone relevance.
Which is a shame, because the complete arc of Mockingjay is easily the most complicated, dark and effective of Suzanne Collins’ book series. We pick up in the aftermath of the 75th Hunger Games: District 12’s been totally destroyed, all-out war is brewing, and Peeta’s fate is uncertain. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and company are adjusting to a strict existence in District 13, a militiary-like underground complex ruled by Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who is trying to push the rebellion and strife between the Districts and the Capitol towards an outright overthrow. The rebellion wants Katniss—traumatized by everything, but particularly Peeta’s absence—to become the symbol of the rebellion, to shoot propaganda films to unify the districts against President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and pretty much serve as a different sort of pawn for a different sort of rule. And … that’s about as far as we get, here.
The scripting, by series newcomers Peter Craig and Danny Strong, doesn’t leave much of an emotional arc for anyone to explore here, instead mistaking moodiness for depth, and Francis Lawrence’s sombre direction makes it an uphill battle for the cast. Lawrence feels boxed-in here, plateaued at “generally pretty upset about things.” Characters who can play against the general mood fare better: Effy (Elizabeth Banks) actually offers more than she ever has before, out of her high-society element for the first time in the trilogy, and just so grumpy about it. She adds some welcome warmth to an otherwise sterile procession.
There’s also a lot of the late Philip Seymor Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the Games’ Head Gamemaker turned advisor to President Coin’s rebellion. Hoffman’s character offers a sense of density and political manoeuvering without succumbing to flatness that most of the leads do. There’s a media-controlling-the-message sort of comment being made here that feels underplayed. There’s also a raid on the Capitol that, shot with plenty of intersplicing between homebase and the mission, doesn’t garner the tension it’s imagining, which is a pretty good summary of the problem with Mockingjay Part One: it’s half a book; a filler episode in a sequence, where circular exposition is mistaken for genuine stakes and revelation.
Directed by Francis Lawrence