** THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE!**
The Hunger Games Franchise: Come for the action. Stay for the bigger, more important message.
If you’ve been following reviews for Mockingjay Part 1 so far, you’ve probably noticed some media outlets griping about the change of pace or fewer action sequences or the lack of the games. But The Hunger Games has always been about more than just the games. The first two films did an excellent job conveying the danger and inequality in Panem through the games, but the story cannot simply be the games, otherwise the whole message Suzanne Collins intended for her audience is lost. The franchise is about the tragedies of war but also the need to question society’s parameters and to fight against injustice, even if it comes at a personal cost. That’s right, folks– We’re moving past the “Whoa, all these people are in a bubble trying to kill each other!” pull and into legitimate political thriller territory.
Mockingjay Part 1 is a tantalizing slow burn. Its pacing, emotion, and action are different from the other films, but in the best way possible. It starts out dark, ends pitch black, and finds moments of levity, anger, sadness, and just about everything else in between. As Katniss attempts to adjust to life in District 13 and reluctantly accepts her role as the voice of the rebellion, a new story element unfolds into something much deeper. Katniss and District 13 go back and forth in the ultimate game of cat and mouse with President Snow, one in which everyone they know is a pawn. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone supporting her in District 13 is really truly on her side, either. The result is a harrowing journey to incite a revolution, one that featured fewer action sequences but kept us more emotionally invested than any Hunger Games movie before it.
There’s a stunning tension created throughout the film by the entire cast. Jennifer Lawrence proved herself as our Katniss long ago, but earns new respect as she handles Katniss’ fragile emotional state with realism and care. Donald Sutherland is an absolute maniacal genius now that he has a chance to flex those baddie muscles. Julianne Moore is a smart, welcome addition as President Coin, who plays beautifully off the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee. The decision to keep Effie in the story was a stellar one and Elizabeth Banks is more perfectly Effie than ever before. Liam Hemsworth plays Gale with much more vulnerability and depth than recent promos have suggested– the rage scene is definitely there, but many others prior to that make it easy to see just how truly torn he is. However, if there’s a “Stepping Up To The Plate” award for this movie, it goes to Josh Hutcherson. Peeta’s transformation is gut-wrenching and visceral, the stuff that makes your breath catch in your throat every time he comes on screen because the agony and instability feels so real. It’s the first time in the series Josh has really been asked to be something beyond the caring, careful version of Peeta we all know so well and he exceeds expectations.
There is still action in this film but it isn’t scene-to-scene as it was when Katniss fought off danger after danger in the arenas. However, please don’t confuse less action with a plodding pace. This movie’s action sticks in your brain and feels much more warranted than in previous films. It is not, as the games were, for anyone’s entertainment. Even in the scenes without explosions and hovercrafts and arrows flying, there’s still plenty of things happening and for us, the entire film felt like it moved very quickly, faster than its actual run time.
Because this movie is a Part 1, you’re not going to get instant gratification around every turn (another sticking point for critics, it seems). But ask yourself– Did you really with The Hunger Games or Catching Fire, either? Francis Lawrence, Danny Strong, and Peter Craig used the opportunity to get more in depth with the story very wisely. Rather than being thrust into District 13, there’s a world-building that you don’t always get in film. President Snow and Plutarch in particular benefit from the books expansion into two parts, in terms of both screen time and character development. Boggs, Cressida, and the film crew are also rewarded a richer understanding than we’d expected. Random gushing: Elden Henson as Pollux was easily our favorite part of the film crew without saying a word, though everyone else played their part very well too.
For all the guessing in the world at the ending, we will only tell you this: You know the ending, but you don’t. You’ll leave the theater feeling charged up and overwhelmed, already eager for the final film.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the film is perfect. We have a few gripes but realize that in the grand scheme of things, they’re pretty minor. We’ll nitpick at a later date because to do so would be to spoil everyone. Even so, we know that Lawrence Squared and the rest of the team have delivered us a stellar film that is sharp and thought-provoking.
We can’t wait to discuss it with all of you!