It’s a known quantity to criticize our corporate masters for breaking apart book adaptations for the sake of profit, and this is an avenue of criticism I tend to shy away from. If the individual films, broken apart, are compelling, I don’t much care for the “completeness” of having a “full” adaptation of a source in one film. And complaining about cliffhanger endings have always seemed a red herring to distract from actually discussing the film. But good god is Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay hurt significantly by being cut in half. Or, at least, this first part is. While The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire weren’t perfect films, they were never unwieldy. Snug filmmaking was the order of the day, except when they sought to make good on their pop-Terrence Malick aspirations and linger on the poetic depression of the earth, which was itself lightly satisfying in its own way.
Here, however, things have gone off the deep end. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the Capitol’s favorite enemy, has woken up to discover a revolution brewing, headed up by impromptu President Coin (Julianne Moore) and strategist Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). She finds that revolution wants to use her as a weapon against the Capitol, headed by serpentine-avuncular President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Her natural sympathies predispose her to join along, until of course the Capitol reveals it has the same strategy for Katniss’ would-be partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
Confused much? The point was intentional, for the plot summary matches the plot in how sketchily and haphazardly it is drawn out, making special note to not remotely recollect what has gotten us to this point so far. The titular Hunger Games, the center of the previous two films, are barely mentioned. Usually I’m totally on-board for such rampant disregard for sense in favor of a focus on the moment at the expense of the past (too many films speak down to their audience via excessive talkiness). Except here, it’s just an excuse for the script to throw us even more dumbfoundingly into the exposition it does choose to throttle us with: exposition not about the past films, but this film’s present. This is not a trade-off that pays dividends before the end. Rather than dumping everything in the early parts of the proceedings, it draws the headache out through the whole feature. This is just about the most garrulous blockbuster ever released.
A word on Lawrence (director Francis, not Jennifer, who has been written about to all end already) who has experience with post-apocalypse stories from his work on 2007’s I Am Legend. He’s got style, and he knows his way around human suffering conveyed with visual panache, showcased in some generally superlative landscape shots where the landscape is less ground than the charred human flesh littering it. It’s all very glum, grim material, and if the script is busy plodding on and on about it, Lawrence is able to stir the bones when the time comes for it. The film’s end game also raises the hairs, giving us a tense attack on the rebel headquarters and a rebel raid on the Capitol, both conveyed less through action than reaction. The rebel raid is almost a master-class in suspense, clearly taking from Kathryn Bigelow’s work on Zero Dark Thirty for maintaining clinical distance even as it throws head-first within the chaos. But it’s too little too late, for Lawrence has until that point spent so much time giving us talking head after talking head that the whole thing had imploded on itself already. The problem, though, isn’t so much Lawrence’ directing but the screenplay for playing down to his weaknesses; he does a fine job when he’s called to, but the film can’t particularly be bothered to call him to do so.
It is, in short, a November blockbuster that mostly consists of people sitting around and talking about the plot. Very little of substance occurs. That’s fine in principle, but this requires, at minimum, a sense that what “will” occur is especially compelling, or that the concern about what will occur is particularly daunting or existential. The fact is, it isn’t. Collins’ books (which I have not read) are said to be about a girl coming to terms with an authoritarian power, and this one is about her realizing that rebelling against authoritarian power has consequences aplenty. This is well-worn material, just about the only thing young adult books seem to latch onto to legitimize their aspirations for maturity. As expected, they explore such themes in largely simplistic, over-written terms (this may be just me, but I’ve had about as much as I can handle of the “let’s criticize revolution on the grounds that it has consequences” train of YA fiction when it is almost categorically the oppressive regime being revolted against that necessitates the consequences of the revolution to begin with). The material is just much less smart than the film thinks it is, and it spends a whole lot of time letting us know how smart it thinks it is.
At the least, Mockingjay does a commendable job mostly avoiding this ultra-individualist tone and throwing in a little pop-Marxism for flavor. Would that it only had the visual wit and excitement to merge its intent with execution, excepting it’s rather rousing final moments. This is a smothered, boardroom-bound film that just loves to force-feed us what it’s thinking though, never less than entirely tangled up in the thickets of it’s own portent. It is the complete opposite of “show, not tell”. It all amounts mostly to a parade of scenes in which people talk about the themes didactically and tirelessly. This is not a movie. It’s a book on stilts.