After being cliff-hung by Catching Fire, the Hunger Games saga could've taken me anywhere. As someone who hasn't read Suzanne Collins' books, it's gratifying to see where Mockingjay - Part 1 goes, where movie franchises with the nerve to split a finale into two paydays typically won't.
Once again, this is a blockbuster fantasy of unusual intelligence yet differently, which is even smarter. These are darker days in Panem than before, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, exquisitely wicked) cracking down on the rebellion Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) began by destroying the Hunger Games.
Gone are the flaming prom gowns and bullet train buffets, replaced by drab jumpsuits and the concrete grays of District 13 where Katniss was airlifted as Catching Fire ended. Mockingjay - Part 1 (or Mock 1, as I like to call it) opens without recap but with Katniss in post-traumatic shock, hospitalized with other Games survivors.
District 13 is led by President Coin (Julianne Moore), advised by former Hunger Games commissioner Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom this movie is dedicated). They want Katniss as the face of the rebellion, in propaganda videos hacked into Capitol programming. Katniss resists until seeing the charred carnage of her homeland District 12. Then it's on.
But not "on" by traditional blockbuster standards. Mock 1 cuts its share of action corners for a revolution flick. We see a lot of rubble and not much being caused, notably an air raid sequence set entirely in District 13's bunker, the damage above conveyed solely by booms and Doppler blips. This movie is more concerned with shell-shock than CGI, an interesting choice.
In place of action, director Francis Lawrence offers ideas. Nothing deep but anything less than shallow is an improvement over other franchises. The series' satirizing of mass media continues, from reality TV parallels in part 1 to Catching Fire's celebrity packaging and now the rebels' propaganda, first hokey then fiery with Katniss in the frame.
Speaking of Katniss, even with an Oscar in hand, this role and its arc confirm Lawrence's acting talent. Other times, the 24-year-old played as grownup as it gets but here without makeup still looks teenaged, never making a false move or line reading to suggest otherwise. She makes fantasy less phony, which is what good actors do.
Lawrence isn't alone. The entire Hunger Games ensemble is top-drawer even when their dialogue isn't. It is wonderful and sad seeing Hoffman again, and how effortlessly he performed. Moore is a solid addition, and Woody Harrelson's public image as a sometime stoner perfectly suits Haymitch Abernathy's recreational habits.
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There are problems, of course. Katniss' beloved Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and his new attachment to the Capitol seems more vital than what the screenplay offers. The wind-up to a one-year intermission before Mock 2 is a bit of a drag, including Katniss singing a battle anthem that goes whatever passes for viral in dystopia.
With Mock 1, the Hunger Games franchise continues to entertain and evolve, not perfectly but smartly, so we can't wait to see what's next. That's what counts when all is said, done and deposited in the bank.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.