‘Mockingjay—Part 1’: The Somber ‘Empire Strikes Back’ of the ‘Hunger Games’ Films

The most noteworthy divergence between Mockingjay—Part 1 and its predecessors in the Hunger Games series is the somberness of its tone. It’s not that the first two pictures were exactly laugh riots — they are, after all, chronicles of bloodthirsty oligarchs demanding children murder each other for their amusement. But the (now-de rigueur) splitting of the final book of the YA franchise into two films means that this half is, by necessity, less about big action bits and more about mood, more setup than payoff. And it features some of the grimmest imagery of the series to date. It may be the franchise’s third movie, but it plays like its Empire Strikes Back.

That tone is established quickly, with a pre-title sequence that finds our Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, again flawlessly encompassing the character’s capacity for both rage and sorrow) an utter wreck, still recovering from the events at the end of Catching Fire, whispering comforts to herself. In the next room, Sam Claflin’s Finnick’s words about the Tributes they left behind are less calming: “I wish they were all dead, and we were too.” The world around them is no less cheerful; riots, strikes, and uprisings have left several of the districts wrecked and rubbled — including Katniss’ own District 12.

Now, housed in District 13, she is being pushed on district President Coin (cool customer Julianne Moore) by Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as a rallying figure. He proposes using her as the centerpiece for a propaganda campaign to “stoke the fires of his revolution,” putting her back into the battle in the process, over her concerns regarding the fate of her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1"

An argument could probably be made that these leisurely split endings do little for the pace and intensity of pop-lit adaptations; the sheer volume of material to pack into the earlier pictures gave them a headlong momentum that is missing here. But it also allows the kind of character depth and colorful detail that would usually fall under the adapting screenwriter’s red marker first. On the downside, that means plenty of screen time for boring ol’ Gale. (Even his name is boring, you guys.)

On the other hand, a fairly considerable amount of time is spent on the logistics of Heavensbee’s propaganda campaign — how the image of Katniss the freedom fighter is carefully cultivated, choreographed, and disseminated. Tense negotiations occur between not just Katniss and Coin, but also Heavensbee and Katniss’ old handler Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks); when he advises Coin on her speech-making, he clarifies not only his remarks, but his operating principle: “I’m only talking about salesmanship.” (The shadow of Hoffman’s loss falls heavily over the picture; we’ve seen him in three movies this year, but the skill of the performance makes the dearth of additional ones all the more depressing.)

All of that stuff is intriguing, but what’s particularly striking about these scenes is how much they seem to capture a movie about itself; we witness double-image scenes of Katniss/Lawrence being “directed,” and later of her refusing to be pushed to perform. And when the first promo/“propo” short is unveiled, one can’t help but notice how much it looks, well, like the trailer for a Hunger Games movie: big speech, big music, branded logo, stark tagline (“JOIN THE MOCKINGJAY/ JOIN THE FIGHT”), and even the same little title music hit.

Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1'

Then again, such a close-reading is (per usual) just one of the interpretations Suzanne Collins’ work allows; it’s vague yet trenchant enough in its politics to allow pretty much whatever’s rattling around to attach itself. (I, for one, kept hearing echoes of past and future trouble in Ferguson in Snow’s insistence on “a peace built on cooperation and respect for law and order” and assurances that “justice will be restored.”) To that end, the PG-13 A-Team bloodlessness of the violence does sometimes soften the punch; occasional action beats are also a bit of a stretch, particularly a tiresome bit involving Prim, a stairway, and an imminently closing door.

But these are relatively minor complaints — as is the most obvious one, that Mockingjay—Part 1 feels like half a movie. (It does, but it’s right there in the title, so.) It’s easy to theoretically dismiss something like this, seeing as how much of it reflects what’s wrong with mainstream filmmaking: big tentpole franchise based on a preexisting phenomenon, branding first and cinema second. But there’s no denying the skill and intelligence with which these movies are made, and the degree to which they go to work on you.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 is out Thursday night in wide release.