“Revolutions are like fires: they need to be nurtured,” states Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, the first half of the grand finale to the Hunger Games phenomenon. The comparison applies just as aptly to franchises, something Mockingjay – Part 1 seems playfully aware of. After the massive success of the first movie, it was easy to predict that The Hunger Games would get bigger, broader, and more liberal with how many movies you can make out of three books. But “smarter” turns out to be the surprise adjective that Mockingjay – Part 1 adds to the Hunger Games saga, even if it’s the entry where a little dumb old gasoline might have helped stoke anticipation for next year’s real farewell.
Picking up shortly after the bombastic and hurried conclusion to Catching Fire, Mockingjay – Part 1 wisely opens by refocusing itself on the face, heart, and soul of the franchise: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. The war for the distant future world of Panem has only just begun, with the long-hidden 13th District preparing to strike at The Capitol, and its despot leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, now in full nefarious mastermind mode and loving it). Some new players are cycled in while a few old ones are kept at a distance, but at the center of it all is still Katniss, the wrought-worked survivor turned unwilling saviour.
What Mockingjay – Part 1 helps to clarify about the future legacy of The Hunger Games saga is that these films are a character study first and dystopian fiction second. Losing the first person narration of Suzanne Collins’ books is still a bugbear for the films, with Katniss often having to explicitly state her thought process whenever conflicted about what she should do. Now the poster child for a social uprising, she has more to worry about than ever, so while Katniss spends more time firing off exposition than arrows this time out, her struggle to take ownership of her identity is more interesting than the guilty pleasure of teen vs. teen gladiatorial mayhem.
Part 1 removes Katniss from the arenas of the Hunger Games (which wore out their welcome about 5 minutes into their reintroduction for the sequel), but her political position is more dangerous than ever. The subterranean rebels of District 13 have ideals on their side, but their leader, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), is unafraid to compromise for the perceived greater good. With Katniss’ friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) playing stooge for The Capitol, Coin leverages his safety in exchange for Katniss becoming the symbol of revolution that many of Panem already view her as.