“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1” — 2 stars — Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks; PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material); in general release
It’s easy to imagine the cinema of the early 21st century being remembered for a continual line of big-budget young adult series adaptations and a whole lot of comic book movies. Even more, we’ll remember the studios' transparent habit of splitting the last novel into two hotly anticipated and profitable films.
Harry Potter did it. Twilight did it. And now we get what may be the most egregious offender of them all: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.”
“Mockingjay Part 1” covers the first half of the third novel in Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy, and aside from a few scattered high points, it feels like a two-hour ellipsis.
Last year, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" ended on one of 2013's most dramatic cliffhangers: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) had just been yanked out of another fight-to-the-death tournament, her boyfriend-but-not-really Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) had been captured by the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) had just bombed their hometown — District 12 — out of existence. (Also, Lenny Kravitz's character was killed, for all you rock and rollers out there.)
The stage was set for the long-awaited revolution against the Capitol. We had spent two long movies in a postapocalyptic world that sent teenagers into life-or-death battle for sport. Now, all we had to do was wait 12 months to see that world get its comeuppance.
Sadly, one year, two hours, five minutes later, we're still waiting.
As "Mockingjay Part 1" opens, Katniss has just arrived at District 13 and been taken in by the subterranean rebel survivors who have been waiting for a symbolic leader to complement their actual leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore).
Familiar faces are in tow. Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Coin’s right-hand-man, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is in rehab and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is adjusting to a life without wigs. Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’s genuine beau, is also there. But strangely, the bliss is missing.
Katniss is Coin's girl, the no-brainer symbol of the revolution to come. But the Mockingjay-to-be is more concerned about the friends her rescue left behind, particularly Peeta. Unfortunately, Peeta has been turning up on regular propaganda broadcasts criticizing the rebels. Katniss believes her hometown buddy is being forced to do the broadcasts against his will, and only agrees to perform Coin’s anti-Capitol broadcasts in exchange for Peeta's rescue and pardon.
So what does the audience get out of this? Lots of walking around in rubble and looking ponderous in the aftermath of Capitol aggression. Lots of impassioned speeches. Lots of conversations about political intrigue. Lots of expository dialogue that tries to distract you from the fact that most of the real action is happening off screen. And way more than you would ever want to know about the war propaganda filmmaking industry.
The central problem is that director Francis Lawrence and Co. are trying to stretch one movie into two. You can call it a cash grab, artistic license, whatever you want, but the result is a two-hour film that should have been the 30- to 45-minute first act of a much better movie. When your protagonist is watching the third act of your movie play out on a TV monitor, you should know you have a problem.
That being said, when "Mockingjay Part 1" does get around to its handful of dramatic moments, it executes them well. The action we see is exciting, and it’s fun to see the scope of the peril transition from the Hunger Games to the world at large. But knowing what the filmmakers are capable of almost makes the tedium worse.
Lawrence is great, as usual, as is her supporting cast, even if the likes of Hoffman and Harrelson feel underused.
Fans of the franchise are just in a tough spot. They pretty much have to go see this movie. They may even like it. And truth be told, if you've already read the third book, you probably saw this coming.
Even so, the filmmakers have let you down. And now you have a whole year more to wait until you can find out whether they'll finally deliver on "Catching Fire's" promise.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and some violent content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.