27 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 shakes up the series in a big way

Despite having devoured the books when I first got my hands on them, I'm not a massive fan of the previous Hunger Games films. Both The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were adequately made science fiction/action films for the young adult audience, but I never saw what was so special about them to the world at large, and I particularly didn't get all the praise that was heaped on Catching Fire, which was for the most part a repeat of the first film with changes to the yearly gimmick of the Hunger Games. If I hadn't already read the books, I would have been worried that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 was going to again repeat the formula of the other two films if it hadn't of been for the last few minutes of Catching Fire, showing us the beginning of a revolution taking place and Katniss waking up in District 13 after being rescued from The Arena as part of a long planned rescue mission.

It turns out that District 13 is and always has been at war with The Capitol, whether The Capitol know it or not. Led by President Coin, District 13 is a militarised state that exists entirely underground, preparing for a full on offensive on The Capitol when the time is right. They need Katniss to play the Mockingjay again in a series of propaganda films in order to keep the fires of the revolution burning in the districts, but The Capitol still has Peeta, and is using him as a counter weapon to try and calm the tension by providing a more reasonable, peaceful figurehead to Katniss and her apparent thirst for the blood of The Capitol.

Mockingjay Part 1 moves away from the formula that both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire followed, and it feels like a real development of the films thanks to that shift. In place of the Hunger Games that have been the centre point of the previous two films, we get story that is much less action orientated, instead focusing on the repercussions of the previous film while setting up the next, giving both it's characters and the plot time to develop and grow naturally, a nice change of pace when compared to the previous two films. This change of pace comes hand in hand with a film that feels much darker, much bleaker than it's predecessors, less afraid to explore the big ideas that the trilogy of books deal with so well.

Don't get me wrong - The Hunger Games books are inherently rather dark thanks to general premise of kids being forced to kill each other, but the final book, Mockingjay, has some particularly harrowing parts that could have been seen as too much for a 12A film. Fortunately, the film doesn't appear to be shying away from or toning down the books - if anything, seeing the events of the book happening on screen adds a weight that is lost in text. Mockingjay Part 1 is bleak from the outset, showing us that the characters we have been getting to know for the last 2 films are seriously damaged by the actions of The Capitol, left with mental scars that will likely never heal.

Any moments of hope that the film presents are often followed by a reaction from The Capitol that swiftly crushes that hope, particularly the finale of the film that, despite having read the books, managed to completely shock me while at the same time taking the series darker than it has been up until now. Throughout the film, there is a sense that despite all the actions of the various Districts, The Capitol is still 'winning' and very much in control of the situation, a feeling that is never more pronounced than in that final scene, a scene that demonstrates that the Capitol is several moves ahead of District 13 and more than willing to play dirty.

The film predominantly takes place in the impressive yet oppressive bunkers and hallways of District 13, a series of grey, drab rooms that give elements of the film a very claustrophobic feel. Everyone wears plain, grey jumpsuits in a stark contrast to the flamboyant and colourful Capitol, but it isn't a contrast the is explored in enough detail - other than President Snow, we don't get to see how the Capitol is reacting to the events, so we don't get to see the contrast of District 13 and The Capitol on screen, which would have been interesting - District 13 can be compared to George Orwell's 1984, a society controlled by permanent war and tight regulations on personal freedom, whereas The Capitol can be compared to Aldous Huxley 's A Brave New World, a society controlled by the fulfilment of any and all hedonistic impulses. Unfortunately ,neither the films not the books allow time for the comparisons to be made, which would have been really interesting and added further ambiguity to the events that are likely to take place in the next film, a question raised in one of Peeta's messages to Katniss - "Do you really know who you are working with?". 

The symbol of the Mockingjay is used to great effect throughout the film, the workers of the various Districts using it as a sign of rebellion and courage. There's a great scene where workers from one of the Districts march towards a dam with the intent of destroying it, approaching what most must realise is their own demise, accompanied by a haunting rendition of an original song called "The Hanging Tree", sang by Katniss. It's strangely inspiring and incredibly well done, at once showing the futility of individual effort as the front lines are gunned down while also showing the power in numbers as they eventually overrun the dam, mirroring an earlier scene when workers from a different District flee into the trees in an organised attack on the Peacekeepers that are enslaving them. It is in these scenes of defiance against a greater power that the film really shines, and it's a shame that there aren't more scenes of this nature - they provide a sense of the much larger revolution as well as giving us a temporary break from both District 13 and Katniss.

There isn't much that Mockingjay Part 1 does wrong, but considering the fairly amazing cast that it has managed to gather, a lot of them are underused. Woody Harrelson really doesn't have that much to do in this film, and Cressida, leader of the camera crew that follow Katniss around, is far to small a role for Natalie Dormer to play. I am assuming that these characters will have bigger roles in the final film, but it is when you begin to consider the point of these characters that you realise how much of this film was just setting up the sequel. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing when the film itself is this entertaining, but it does take some of the momentum out of the film when these things become more obvious, and it's a problem that the book avoided by simply remaining as one book instead of splitting into two. I can't imagine that this film will ever be watched on it's own once the sequel (or should that be continuation) comes out on home video.

Additionally, despite Jennifer Lawrence being universally adored, I just cannot get behind her in these films. I know she is a good actress, giving an amazing performance in this years American Hustle, but in both this series and the X-Men franchise I fail to see her as anyone other than Jennifer Lawrence mimicking the emotions that these characters should be feeling. It could be that she is suffering from being a well known celebrity personality, but I struggle to disconnect the character she is playing from the personality she puts out. That's not to say that she is bad in the role - you can clearly tell what Katniss is thinking and feeling throughout the film - it's just that her performance feels less natural than those around her, which kind of goes without saying when she shares multiple scenes with Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who are naturally great in this film. 

Mockingjay Part 1 ends up being my favourite of the Hunger Games films so far, dealing with the repercussions of Catching Fire while also telling a character-driven story that is leading into what could be an amazing finale for the franchise. It's just over 2 hours long but feels about half that thanks to great pacing and a really interesting plot that you get swept up in almost straight away, and despite being light on action is never light on tension thanks to the overwhelming sense of despair that the film gives off. It's representative of the Hunger Games franchise as a whole - it's smart, meaningful and entertaining, not afraid to explore adult themes within the context of entertainment for teenagers, and fans of the books or the previous films are most likely going to love it.

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