Nowadays, there is a current trend of dividing the final installment in a series into two films. It started with Harry Potter and it has extended to Twilight, Divergent and yes, The Hunger Games. Even Peter Jackson produced three films out of one tiny book, and while it will be naive to think that they are doing this for artistic reasons rather than collecting more money, sometimes this "partitions" work for the better. They benefitted the last Harry Potter films and now they are benefitting The Hunger Games, a franchise that keeps improving with each new installment.
Many people disliked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - part 1 because they said it was short on action and not much happened. I disagree. For the first time in the series, Part 1 provided a breathing room for the characters. We got to know them better and we got to see their inner struggles as Voldermort's power increased around them. Friendships were tested, hope diminished and darkness enveloped them like never before. True, it was not as action-packed as the rest of the films in the series but this film was pivotal in showing us what was at stake for the characters and how difficult it was for them to succeed. Likewise, Mockingjay - part 1 will not be known as the most action-packed film in the saga but it's also a a key point in showing us how big the conflict is.
Warning: Spoilers for the first two Hunger Games films follow:
When we last saw Katniss, she has been rescued from the Quarter Quell and it was revealed to her that District 13, (which was considered long gone) was alive and well. She was saved by Plutarch Heavensbee who was working as a double agent against the Capitol. Unfortunately, Peeta and Johanna couldn't be saved and they were now in the Capitol's hands. Katniss has a hard time adapting to her new reality and assuming the role of the "Mockingjay" and lead the rebels to a war against the Capitol. District 13 is ruled by President Alma Coin and she and Plutarch devise a propaganda strategy to sell the idea of the "Mockingjay" to the world. Meanwhile, president Snow uses Peeta as a tool to disuade Katniss of fighting against them.
Mockingjay plays more as a strategy film rather than an action-adventure one as the first two films did. There's not much action scenes and the proverbial Hunger Games are nowhere to be seen. However, that doesn't mean the film shies away from the horrors of war. In fact, Mockingjay may be the most brutal of the Hunger Games films because it shows us the human toll war takes in a more graphic way than any of the other films showed during the Hunger Games. Katniss' struggle to keep Peeta alive while simultaneously becoming the face of the revolution is a compelling one because she has to make hard choices and there's not a completely right answer. No matter what she does, someone is going to get hurt and the burden of this decisions haunt her throughout the film, making her more relatable.
The Hunger Games films have always been imbued with social commentary making them more though-provoking and interesting than the grand majority of YA films. The role of the media has always been a pivotal one in these films and in Mockingjay, it's interesting to see its use by both factions in order to win the war. While the real combat will no doubt come in the final installment, here, the media is the element that strengthens the revolution and compels people to fight against the Capitol. Propaganda is a very powerful tool and stripes away the fear people have of dying and makes them do things for the greater good.
The love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta is still on but , unlike the Twilight series, it's not the main focus (thankfully) and it develops organically alongside the main story. And, while director Francis Lawrence is surely saving the big action pieces for Part 2, that doesn't mean this film is without its own thrills. One sequence towards the end is particularly tense and keeps you at the edge of your seat. Lawrence plays the suspense very well and the payoff on that sequence is both thrilling and devastating at the same time.
Most of the cast from previous installments return in excellent form. Jennifer Lawrence continues to deliver a nuanced and powerful performance as Katniss, Liam Hemsworth is finally able to expand his role as Gale and Josh Hutcherson remains the heart of the series as the tortured Peeta. Supporting players are superb as well with the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman delivering a funny and earnest performance as Plutarch (in one of his final film roles), Woody Harrelson is even better as a now-sober Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks remains a favorite as the clueless but lovable Effie. Newcomer Julianne Moore is great as well as the stoic president Coin.
While the decision of dividing the last book into two films may seem a questionable one, there's no denying that director Francis Lawrence has taken this opportunity to deliver an enthralling first half of the final chapter. Short on action but with an abundance of thrills, Mockingjay - part 1 raises the stakes in a meaningful way and sets the arena for what it's going to be an intense and gut-wrenching finale. Highly recommended!