Back in 2010 we got the first real ‘split-a-book-in-half’ movie with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 and 2), and I don’t recall hearing too many laments that it was being done for the wrong reasons; it’s a 759-page book, for heaven’s sake, and pretty much every word of it is worthwhile.
A year later the Twilight Saga folk suddenly had an excuse do to the same thing; their decision, however, (it rhymes with “honey”) was met with almost universal scorn—that is, outside of the franchise’s tweeny fan community.
(And don’t get me started on the ongoing project of turning the 300-page The Hobbit into not two, but three movies.)
Now we get The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, which lands in theaters a full year after Catching Fire and yet another full year before the series’ conclusion. Though there are a handful of decent moments here, unfortunately there’s little that makes the film worthwhile in and of itself. Director Francis Lawrence could have easily done some editing, combined the result with the best of Part 2’s footage, and given us an outstanding single movie… especially given the fact that both parts were filmed concurrently, and Part 2 is now just spending the next year sitting in a hard drive somewhere.
Picking up immediately after the events of 2013’s Catching Fire, Mockingjay Part I opens with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering in District 13, following her rescue from the Quarter Quell. (I’ll just go on the assumption that you have some idea what I’m talking about.) Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been captured by the Capitol, and Katniss is now being recruited as the face of the revolution by District 13’s president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). The rest of the movie (the first half of the book) is largely a series of fairly insignificant moments. The book, we know, culminates with a massive battle in the Panem civil war, but we get barely a whiff of that here. The only time the film gets anything resembling a pulse is when Katniss gets into a mini-skirmish while visiting a hospital in District 8.
Most of the old gang is back for this go-round, including: the phenomenal Philip Seymour Hoffman (to whom the film is dedicated) as the glib rebel leader Plutarch Heavensbee; Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ stoic, hunting buddy (and now rebel soldier) Gale Hawthorne; and Elizabeth Banks as the hilariously posh stylist Effie Trinket, whose role is (thankfully) significantly expanded from the original book. Woody Harrelson returns, too, as Haymitch, and though he steals every scene he’s in, there are precious few of them. (Fortunately the atrocious and miscast Hutcherson is relegated to a tiny part, seen primarily in a series of innocuous quick-hit video clips from the Capitol.)
To her credit, Lawrence keeps things afloat with a solid, resounding performance. She’s so good that she just dances circles around everyone else (save Harrelson and Hoffman). Even Moore can’t seem to keep up, but that’s a reflection of her corny, rabble-rousing role—not her ability.
I have no doubt that Mockingjay—Part 2 will get everything back on track and end the franchise with a bang (and a boom or two, plus a few ka-blams), but it will also likely remind us, 364 days from now, that Part 1 was little more than filler—the Styrofoam peanuts of the Hunger Games box.