The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

Fire burns brighter in the darkness

Following in the footsteps of past book-to-film adaptations, the last volume of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, has been split into two flicks — imitating both Harry Potter and Twilight — with this penultimate installment of the dystopian sci-fi saga — based on the best-selling young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins — being unnecessarily stretched into two parts, making the third Hunger Games picture, Mockingjay – Part 1, a cash-machine episode that works more as a teaser for next year’s epic send-off rather than a standalone feature. Certainly the most unique and distinctly different of the Hunger Games feats thus far, Mockingjay – Part 1 takes its foot off the action, and goes deeper and darker, as this bold outing is loaded with gut-wrenching tension, commanding performances and intelligent political subtext.

May the odds be ever in your favor!

May the odds be ever in your favor!

Mockingjay – Part 1 opens in the so thought ‘destroyed,’ now isolated and outright rebellious, District 13, whose commanders rescued Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from the Quarter Quell games at the conclusion of the prior pic. Since then, rioting has broken out in several districts across the American nation of Panem, and District 13’s icy leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), convinces Katniss to stand as the poster girl for the revolution, making her the ‘Mockingjay,’ a symbol of rebellion for the people of the 12 districts, in the hopes of igniting an all-out civil war against the rapacious Capitol, and its malicious totalitarian ruler, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

With no fight-to-the-death games or customary action sequences to be seen in this chapter, as it only contains a handful of not-so-glamorous set-pieces, Jennifer Lawrence’s, The Hunger Games (2012), bow and arrow show takes a back seat, allowing her performance to drive the narrative, making her storm-raging, earthy, emotional act, one of the film’s defining standout elements. Mockingjay is Katniss’ coming-of-age story, as the character wrestles with her dominant role in the armed struggle against the oppressive Capitol. While the rebels in the underground District 13 are perceived as the ‘good guys,’ Katniss is, at first, somewhat unconvinced, particularly by the freedom-fighting leader’s methods, but soon places her full trust in President Alma Coin, played with firm strictness by newcomer to the franchise, Julianne Moore, Magnolia (1999), and former gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, portrayed with offbeat cheek by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005), who tragically died one week before principal photography wrapped-up on the project — due to the fact that the majority of Hoffman’s scenes were shot prior to his sudden passing, the role was not re-cast, but finished with a combination of re-writes, clever camera tricks and seamless digital special effects.

Hunger Thrones!

Hunger Thrones!

Having a definitive role to play in the pending uprising, Katniss fully understands her importance and the responsibility entrusted to her, promptly falling in line, simply going along with the wishes of leadership, under Commander Coin; though initially motivated after a trip back to her devastated home, District 12, witnessing, first-hand, the aftermath, and countless casualties, of a retaliation attack launched by the Capitol. Previous Quarter Quell competitors, Finnick Odair — played with cheerless charm by Sam Claflin, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) — and wheelchair bound computer whizz, Beetee — with Jeffrey Wright, Casino Royale (2006), reprising his role — also join the fight, as does Katniss’ former District 12 lover, who was only seen as a love rival in previous outings, Gale Hawthorne — once again being helmed by Aussie heartthrob, Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2 (2012) — this time around though, audiences finally get a chance to see the character of Gale mature and develop, with Hemsworth sharing many dramatic scenes alongside the gifted Lawrence.

In addition to bringing autonomy to the repressed people of Panem, Katniss agrees to aid the revolt in the hope of rescuing other Quarter Quell survivors, whom are reportedly being held captive over in the Capitol, largely her District 12 teammate, Peeta Mellark — with Josh Hutcherson, Bridge to Terabithia (2007), comfortably stepping back into the character’s familiar shoes. Peeta is assumed to be at the mercy of the President Snow, seen in a string of propaganda-type interviews, hosted by the ever-so-charismatic Caesar Flickerman — who Stanley Tucci, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), depicts so well — urging other districts to cease the fighting, a means for the Capitol to counteract District 13’s mutiny efforts.

... Peacekeeper Wars ...

… Peacekeeper Wars …

Of the newly introduced support cast, the biggest standout inclusion is, without a doubt, Natalie Dormer, who plays the visually striking renegade, Cressida — a far cry from her elegant, elaborately dressed Game of Thrones (2011) persona, Margaery Tyrell — a female filmmaker, originally from the corrupt, decedent, ruling Capitol, who joins the revolution, led by freedom fighters from District 13. Using her camera skills to document Katniss and the rebels as they set about taking down the elite Capitol and its sinister leader, President Snow, Dormer — sporting a half-shaved head, the baled section patterned in a green vine tattoo, which extends down her shoulder and arm — is oozing with energy, delivering a radiant, albeit short-lived, performance; Dormer is an actress that demands attention and needs to land herself a leading-lady role, allowing the starlet to showcase her growing skills and earn the recognition she so justly deserves. The fact that the glamorous Dormer had to undergo a dramatic new look for the role isn’t surprising, especially given that The Hunger Games films are partly known for the flamboyant hair, make-up and costume designs of the Capitol inhabitants.

Perhaps the most memorable styles are those of Elizabeth Banks,’ Slither (2006), camp escort, Effie Trinket, who accessorizes her towering bouffant curls, with oversized flowers and butterflies, and a succession of madder outfits. Though, in Mockingjay – Part 1, Effie has fled the Capitol, taking refuge beneath the surface in the glum District 13 and emerges almost unrecognizable, clothed in a dreary jumpsuit, with a far-from-showy towel, wrapped around her untailored hair. Effie isn’t the only character who has undergone a vast transformation; Woody Harrelson’s, Now You See Me (2013), Haymitch Abernathy now appears to be sober, and off the alcohol, giving the District 13 leaders some food for thought, particularly after Katniss unconvincingly shouts out lines on liberty and rebellion in a studio setting, scripted for her by Heavensbee, making-up part of what was supposed to be a stirring freedom-fighting broadcast campaign. Ultimately, everyone in this gargantuan ensemble cast is given ample opportunity to flaunt their talent, all delivering notable performances, perhaps the best in the series thus far.

Get your game face on!

Get your game face on!

It’s clear that director, Francis Lawrence, who helmed the previous second installment of the popular franchise, has a bold vision for the type of story he wishes to tell, knowing and understanding the source material exceptionally well. Unlike the previous two Hunger Games films, which focused on heart-pounding action, Mockingjay – Part 1 is more of a political-type thriller, opposed to an action thriller, using brain-washing propaganda and mind-games to generate most of its tension and suspense. Punters who flocked to see fantastical creatures and colorful clothes in the previous installments may be somewhat disappointed as this surprisingly bleak film chiefly focuses on the media and its manipulative potential, exploring the infinite influential capacity it possesses. From the get-go, The Hunger Games saga has always been about the weight of propaganda and the persuasive capabilities of controlled media, how it can present a story that has the power to sway the hearts and minds of countless individuals, even when unvarnished truths might appall this very same audience. Mockingjay – Part 1 is no different, as filmmakers continue exploring this constantly considered theme, with the politics of Mockingjay being just as gripping, and possibly more deadly, than the games themselves.

In a marketplace congested with ‘Super’ human characters — simply look at the many Marvel and DC films lined up for release over the next few years — The Hunger Games, as an alternative, focuses on ordinary people doing some extraordinary things. A standout sequence in Mockingjay – Part 1 begins with the multi-talented Lawrence singing, ‘The Hanging Tree,’ a chillingly morbid ballad. It is then taken up by a multitude of voices, while an act of heroism is undertaken by this normal group of civilians; the yearnsome melody makes us feel for these nobodies, offering inexpensive and idiosyncratic cinema at its absolute finest.

Rest Area, Next Right

Rest Area, Next Right

The Hunger Games film series got off to a relatively competent start, back in 2012, elevated by a slicker, smarter and slightly more vicious, second installment. Now in 2014, within this third entry, the franchise feels refreshingly new. While it’s certainly difficult to judge the picture on a standalone merit — as it does feel like you’re watching the first part of an unfinished film — Mockingjay – Part 1 is certainly riveting, intellectually and emotionally charged, big-budget cinema, imagined for a modern age of social consciousness. Brilliantly directed, with an engrossing script — penned by Peter Craig, The Town (2010) and Danny Strong, Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) — and fine performances all around, headed by the exceptionally charismatic Lawrence, Mockingjay – Part 1 certainly lives up to its fanatical hype. Finishing up on a devastating cliffhanger, offering the protagonists very little in terms of hope, this appetizer literally leaves us hungry for more, as I’m confident that next year’s highly anticipated finale will surely deliver a satisfying wrap-up to, what has so far been, one of the most enthralling science-fiction films of this generation.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia