Don’t dare listen to anyone who tries to convince you that the final chapter of The Hunger Games trilogy was so dense and so packed with incident that it needed to be broken up into two films. Make no mistake: Mockingjay Part I is a stopgap measure, a money hungry attempt to drag this series out far longer than it need be. This would be an almost forgivable offense if the movie overcame and exceeded its red-headed stepchild status. Instead, Part I drags its feet for two hours, tossing in stray bits of action to counter the filmmakers’ efforts to wrench as many tears and shuddering moments of fear as they can from star Jennifer Lawrence.
Mockingjay plops us right back into the world of Panem, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, of course) living deep in the bowels of District 13 and recovering from the psychological and physical ailments that she endured at the end of Catching Fire. Distraught by the destruction that the Capitol wrought upon her home district, she agrees to be a propaganda tool in a series of (essentially) viral videos meant to recruit unhappy citizens in the other districts to the cause. The catch is that the powers that be in District 13 must rescue her beloved Peeta and the other two hostages from the last Quarter Quell.
And that’s pretty much it. Throw in a little effort by screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig to comment on TV’s power to unnecessarily prop up people as figureheads for a particular cause — in this case, Peeta as the voice of the Capitol and Katniss as the child of the revolution — and you’ve summed up the majority of this 123 minute placeholder. But even the social criticism gets botched in translation due to the truly desperate acting on the part of the younger players involved. No one, and I mean no one, under 30 comes out looking good here. It feels strange to say considering a three-time Oscar nominee (and one time winner) is in the lead, but Lawrence shows no signs of her acumen here. The defiant glance she gave the camera at the end of Catching Fire has been replaced by mouth agape confusion and over-the-top convulsing.
What is especially frustrating is that director Francis Lawrence proves capable of some impressive dramatic moments here. You see none of the bombing raid on District 13, experiencing it only through the pained and fearful expressions of the people suffering through every explosion while hiding deep underground. Too, the daring attempt to retrieve Peeta, Johanna, and Annie, with a rescue team rappelling down the center of a high-rise in the middle of the night, is one of the most quiet and most beautiful sequences in the three movies released to date.
I can only imagine that if the director had his way, there would be many more scenes just like those throughout Part I. But maybe with Lionsgate wanting to squeeze as much from this series as possible, he had to punt and let the story dawdle along for the sake of the franchise. The real action is most likely coming in the next installment, and it’s a shame that we have to wait a full year before we get a chance to bear witness to it.