I wasn't sure what to expect with "Mockingjay Part 1," which is in its most basic conception, only the first half of a story that won't conclude until "Part 2" in November, thanks to the infuriating trend of franchise finale-splitting. The source material is reportedly a problematic installment that left many of the series' fan unsatisfied. And of course, there are all the usual complaints that we're watching films about children killing each other, aimed at a strictly PG-13 young adult audience.
Then again, consider that "Mockingjay" stars recent Oscar darling Jennifer Lawrence, and the supporting cast includes Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Jeffrey Wright. The worldbuilding and the allegorical elements of the films have gotten stronger and stronger with each film, and strategy and negotiation scenes are now far more important than any depictions of combat. In the first "Hunger Games" I thought that it was clever that one of the challenges Katniss faced was learning how to cultivate a sympathetic media image to help her win the Games. Now in the third film, that media image is being used to incite a full-blown revolution, and Katniss struggles to leverage the power that comes with that position to help her loved ones. Unlike many cinematic revolution stories, our heroine isn't leading the charge. Rather, Katniss spends much of the movie reconciling the gulf between the manufactured image of the freedom-fighter Mockingjay and who she actually is - an overwhelmed teenage girl whose first priority is saving a captured love interest.
So "Mockingjay" is a strange bird, a blockbuster action film that doesn't contain much action at all, where the heroine's biggest contribution to the cause is the creation of propaganda, and the major setting is a colorless underground bunker. Violence is all around them, but we see little of it directly. Rather, I was gratified to discover that "Mockingjay" is one of those rare films that is actually about the consequences of violence. What we do see of the uprising is brutal, and many people die, but the focus is on the psychological damage done to Katniss and her friends. I've seen some complaints that Katniss is less sympathetic in this film because she spends so much of it passive, indecisive, and fixated on saving a few people as hundreds are dying in her name. But if you consider the circumstances and the kind of trauma that she's been subjected to throughout this series, it makes sense that Katniss would react like this, and only embrace the role of the Mockingjay gradually over time as the stakes are raised. Like the first part of "Deathly Hallows," the quieter buildup to the big action finale actually gives the series the room to show its protagonist's character growth.
I can't say enough good things about the cast here. Lawrence is as compelling as ever, and holds her own against some acting heavyweights. I especially like Sutherland's malevolent President Snow and Julianne Moore as the pragmatic President Coin. Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket provides some very welcome comic relief, while Philip Seymour Hoffman keeps a lot of ridiculous exposition from sounding too ridiculous. Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson don't get a lot to do, but they ensure their few scenes have a lot of impact. And I'm even more impressed with director Francis Lawrence and the writers for giving the cast the kind of material to turn in some very memorable performances. We're still in typical blockbuster territory, and there are some missteps with the dialogue, but you can definitely count "Mockingjay" as one of the better franchise films this year that embraces difficult ideas, alongside "Days of Future Past" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."
And while "Mockingjay" is less visually interesting than the previous "Hunger Games" films, the production is still excellent. The bombed out towns covered in rubble, the sterile living spaces of District 13, and the utilitarian clothing (that Effie despairs of) feel much closer to reality than anything we've seen before, while still being stylized enough to maintain some distance. "Mockingjay" eliminates many of the little fantastic conceits that have characterized the series so far, which makes the atmosphere much more serious and grim. Two of the best action scenes in the whole series are here - brief examples of unrest in the other Districts that Katniss instigates. I still found some of the effects work a little shaky, a problem that has been with this franchise since the beginning, but it's a minor issue this time out.
This is easily the best film of the "Hunger Games" series, and I expect that "Mockingjay Part 2" won't top it, considering the kind of action-heavy finale the filmmakers have been promising. But you never know. "The Hunger Games" has consistently exceeded my expectations and its latest installment has cemented its place as my current favorite ongoing film series.