The basic storyline is compelling: it’s a dystopic future and the totalitarian government that controls everything keeps a tight lid on the twelve outlying Districts with the annual Hunger Games. Each district must send two children chosen at random, and when District 12’s choice is Prim Everdeen (Willow Shields), her big sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) courageously volunteers to go in her place. The first film in the series, The Hunger Games, is about the Games, but when Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) win, they are forced into a winners-only Hunger Games rematch: the Quarter Quell, the focus of the second film, Catching Fire.
In this third film, Katniss becomes the reluctant figurehead for the rebels, fighting the central government of Panem as led by the malicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The rebels are hiding out in the hardened underground military bunkers of District 13, and their life is joyless, with grey jumpsuits, minimal food rations and lots of rules. They also have video production facilities and a way to broadcast to all the other Districts. Katniss is reluctant, so propaganda expert Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the severe President Coin (Julianne Moore) must plot how to get Katniss to reprise her role as the Mockingjay, the brave symbol of the rebellion.
Meanwhile, Peeta is held prisoner in the Capital, and much of the film is about his anti-rebellion propaganda broadcasts and the pro-rebel propaganda films Katniss records in response. Peeta still loves Katniss, and Katniss loves him, but the handsome Gale (Liam Hemsworth) loves her too, even as she makes it clear she’s devoted to Peeta. Does it sound like a teen love triangle? It is.
There’s surprisingly little action in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and much of the film transpires within the subterranean confines of District 13 with Katniss complaining that she doesn’t want to be the puppet of the rebellion and Plutarch trying to manipulate her into bringing her fierceness to the “propos” films needed to inspire the rebellion.
Problem is, Katniss isn’t fierce. In fact, she’s rather a whiny teen through most of the film, with little passion and no enthusiasm for her role, even after she visits the now-destroyed District 12 and a rebel field hospital in District 8. The entire film is characterized by lifeless performances and even splendid actors like Hoffman and Moore sleepwalk through their roles rather than embracing them.
The entire story is also upside-down because The Capital is the colorful city with art, fashion, parties, lively architecture, happy citizens and few rules, while the rebel’s District 13 is a totalitarian nightmare, completely uniform, constrained by an enormous number of rules and regulations, and with no freedom or individuality. Why would someone want to join the rebels? If this were 1984, District 13 would be what society was trying to avoid. This dichotomy also exists in the comparison between rebel President Coin with her severe appearance and mannerisms versus the flamboyant and entertaining President Snow. He’s the antagonist, but at least he’s interesting and charismatic.
The biggest problem with the film, however, is Katniss herself. The third book in the series was the weakest in structure and story, and the film has the same limitation. Katniss was originally introduced as a strong young woman who could take care of herself, was aware of the horror of her situation and sympathetic to the other participants in the Games. A great role model.
In Mockingjay Part 1 Katniss has become a weak and uninteresting woman who is cowed by her situation, reluctant to get involved, brusque and unsympathetic to the devoted Gale and uninspiring when she does finally agree to represent the rebels. She doesn’t grow into being a great leader, she remains pouty and meek, a symbol no one would follow or find inspirational.
The rebel plan is to infiltrate the Capital and free Peeta and the other Games winners, but they’re so clueless that it seems impossible that they could succeed. In District 8, for example, Snow has video cameras so he can monitor activity, but wouldn’t Panem citizens know about the surveillance, especially tech expert Beetee (Jeffrey Wright)? And if so, why wouldn’t tracking the cameras down and destroying them be a top priority?
The first film in the series was flawed, but highly entertaining. The second was also good but the story started to fall apart, a failure that condemns The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 to being a dry, confusing film characterized by poor performances and an unengaging narrative. More action, more passion, and a Katniss who was convincing once she becomes the Mockingjay would have helped this installment. And we’re not done yet: Mockingjay Part 2 comes out next year. I fear it’s not going to be very good either.