How do you review half a movie? Do you just write half of a review? Maybe that’s the right thing to do. Maybe it’s the only intelligent thing to do. But just maybe, nobody should blame The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the latest victim of Hollywood’s desire to bleed dry literary adaptations by dragging them out hours longer than necessary. If anything, the film need only be held accountable for being staunchly mediocre. It’s a prologue without an epilogue, an introduction without a conclusion, 120 minutes of setup without a proper climax. In other words, it’s a drag.
In the third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Young Adult sci-fi dystopia, PTSD-afflicted heroine Katniss Everdeen (a tired, haggard-looking Jennifer Lawrence) wanders the industrial halls of the heretofore hidden District 13, thought destroyed by everyone whose opinion matters; the finale of last year’s Catching Fire saw her whisked away to this dimly lit and grimy place following the annihilation of her home by the Capitol. Now, she’s been plucked from one system of control and plopped right into another, her destiny still imposed on her by adults. It turns out that the leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), has designs on using Katniss’ notoriety to rally the oppressed denizens of Panem against their one-percenter overlords.
Instead of a fight in a physical arena, the rebels and the Capitol have taken their conflict to your television sets through slanted interviews and promo spots. The flamboyant TV personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, always great) grills one third of The Hunger Games’ central love triangle, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, ditto), before an eager viewing audience. Katniss stands on a soundstage, waving a CGI flag while delivering terribly written, pot-stirring proclamations, terribly. This kind of media-fueled tit for tat can only go on for so long and, yes, eventually all becomes explosions and action to dazzle us into submission. But when arrows do start flying, it’s sort of disappointing. Watching the combatants engage each other through subterfuge and misdirection is infinitely more interesting than watching them blow each other up.
In between the leaden strides The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 takes to get from Point A to Point B (without actually getting to Point B), one can see where this could have been a good movie. That doesn’t make the experience forgivable, but it does make it more tolerable. A scene in a hospital filled with wounded revolutionaries surges with pride, unrest and purpose; a climactic crosscutting sequence where the picture flits from a dangerous rescue mission to the filming of a propaganda video builds slow tension by comparing wartime tactics. These beats and others give the first chapter of Mockingjay a pulse. They don’t, however, give the production a soul.
The real problem with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is intention. There is absolutely no reason to stretch this part of the story out into a four-hour extravaganza other from greed. Director Francis Lawrence places his curtain call at the right time, in a manner of speaking—it’s just when things start to get really good, as characters who have spent the film apart from one another are finally reunited (and not necessarily for the better)—but the moment would have more effect in a complete cut of Mockingjay than in this frustrating excuse for a median. There is nothing gained by the split; on the contrary, drawing out the narrative introduces bloat, and the bloat isn’t compelling. It’s thunderously dull.
The things that work about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 underscore how much about the film that doesn’t. Even a weak one-movie version of Collins’ book would have been more satisfying than this kind of cash-grabbing tease; it’d have been leaner and more deliberate, a proper yarn with a proper conclusion. Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Peter Jackson’s grossly negligent treatment of The Hobbit, we’re told to wait patiently to see how a story ends when we already know what happens. There’s a good movie lurking in Mockingjay, Part 1. It’s just buried under a surplus of filler.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Danny Strong, Peter Craig
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland
Release Date: Nov. 21, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has written about film for the web since 2009, and has contributed to Paste since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.