Saturday, 29 November 2014

If you read my review of last year’s Catching Fire, you’ll know that I rather like The Hunger Games. The first two films established this series as much more than the admittedly-funny ‘Battle Royale with cheese’ joke suggests – it’s simultaneously a big sci-fi blockbuster that appeals to a broad audience and an intelligent media satire, avoiding many of the more annoying trappings of many other ‘teen’-marketed films – all the angst-ridden moping around that goes on in Twilight, for example.  

For the final part of the trilogy, however, the series seems to have fallen into one of those traps – in what can either be interpreted as wanting to retain as many of the book’s details as possible or wanting to milk as much money as possible, Suzanne Collins’ third novel Mockingjay has been adapted into not one but two films.  

Following on from Catching Fire’s dramatic cliffhanger, Mockingjay Part 1 is distinctly different from its two predecessors in that it doesn’t feature a visit to the Hunger Games themselves; rather, it throws us into the action as all-out war is beginning between the bourgeoisie of the Capitol and rebellious forces from the impoverished districts. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is taken to the believed-destroyed District 13, where Julianne Moore’s President Coin and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee plan to use her as a propagandic heroine to incite rebellion across the districts. Though re-united with old buddy Gale, whose hair is far too neat to be realistic for the fugitive resistance fighter he now is, Katniss is more concerned about games buddy Peeta, who’s being held captive in the Capitol by a wonderfully bearded Donald Sutherland. And there’s a film crew led by Natalie Dormer off of Game of Thrones, who has a really cool half-shaved hairstyle. Got all that? Oh, and there’s Jeffrey Wright as techie Beetee whose name you really should remember, otherwise you’ll be as confused as me by the line “Thanks to Beetee, we now have ten percent improved access to the airwaves” – now isn’t that the weirdest product placement ever?

That was a lot of set-up for the actual critical bit of the review, which seems fitting for this film; at times, Part 1 feels like set-up for Part 2 rather than a story which works in itself – whereas previous instalments, while clearly part of a larger story, had their individual trips to the games arena as structural devices. A big part of this problem is the distinct scarcity of good action sequences, and there are only two or three moments when it feels like, you know, stuff is happening. And the best bit’s in the trailer.

That’s actually a common criticism of this film; some critics seem to have really disliked Mockingjay Part 1 because it’s very much a Part 1. Personally, while I found this a problem at some of the slower moments, it didn’t bother me as much as it has others. I remained engrossed through large chunks of the film, largely because I found myself really invested in the political side of it, a fascinating exploration of the importance of wartime icons. Whereas previous instalments saw the Capitol pacify their citizens with reality TV, this time both sides are up to the same tricks – even the rebels we side with are using Katniss as the futuristic equivalent of Kitchener on the the ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters. A rebellion needs its figureheads to give the oppressed people hope, but to what extent is this type of broadcast any different to the villains’ propaganda, and to what extent should we believe everything we see on TV? This is not just a ‘teen’ film – it’s a clever media satire.

As well as the political side of it, I also found myself very invested in the characters. As ever, Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as Katniss – heartbroken by the horrors she sees, awkward when placed in front of a camera, but a passionate activist who’ll fight for her cause when provoked. I’m not sure if Katniss is quite as likeable in this film as before, though – she spends a little too much time worrying about Peeta, and it borders on Twilight-level mopey, straying from the sterner, resilient side which I liked before. The 'I'm not sure I signed up to be a propaganda tool' moping is interesting. The 'Do I love Peeta?' moping, not so much. It’s also not quite clear what exactly her feelings for Gale are – previously he was the love interest neglected because she was too busy fighting the good fight, here he’s the fellow soldier who she’s kind of friends with but also there may be something romantic there and I don’t really know… I’m sure readers of the books will know exactly what’s going on, but to someone like me who hasn’t got around to them, it could all be a little clearer and more concise.

One more point, and it’s a positive one – I love the production design on this series, which consistently hits just the right balance between grounded realism, bleak dystopia, and futuristic fantasy. I particularly love how the design of the Capitol’s soldiers is somewhere between Star Wars’ stormtroopers and a modern-day SWAT team, and the visual disparity between the ruined districts and the Capitol’s colourful pomposity perfectly enforces the film’s themes – though I kind of wish we’d seen more exteriors of the Capitol in this instalment, even if just as establishing shots for the President Snow scenes, to counter all the bleakness…

So Mockingjay Part 1 has its flaws – Katniss isn’t quite as strong a heroine, and its lack of action causes it to feel too set-up heavy. Nevertheless, it does have lots of interesting characters, it builds strongly on the series’ satirical edge, and it looks lovely. Would Mockingjay have been better as one long third film? Probably. But the whole of The Hunger Games series remains an excellent example of politically aware sci-fi with broad appeal. I compared Catching Fire to The Empire Strikes Back, so Mockingjay Part 1 is the first half of Return of the Jedi. It gets all the pieces in place for the big finale, it’s almost-but-not-quite as good, and it features an attempt to rescue one of the male leads from captivity. Hey, that works weirdly well. I hope there’s not a big trap coming.


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