Since Harry Potter was put out to grass, The Hunger Games franchise has assumed a massive new significance for Hollywood. The series of films adapted from Suzanne Collins’ novels have made Jennifer Lawrence into a global star and have transformed their producer Lionsgate into as big a player as the the traditional old studios.
Teenagers clamour to see each new episode while box office analysts, after shaky recent times in the global film business, look to the films to provide a major end of year boost. That is why there were such feverish expectations in advance of last night’s world premiere of Mockingjay Part 1.
The film doesn’t exactly disappoint but nor does it satisfy. There is a half a sandwich feel to the latest instalment - a sense that the film makers have denied us a full experience by splitting the movie into two. The film lasts for two hours
The film, based on the final book in the trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, lasts for two hours but only takes us some of the way toward the conclusion of the story. (For the real finale, we ill have to wait until this time next year, when Part 2 of Mockingjay is released in cinemas.)
This is an even darker drama than its predecessors. That is partly because so much of it is set in the murky, subterranean world of District 13 where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been taken by the rebels.
They want her to be the poster girl for the revolution they are busy fomenting against the Capitol’s purring, white bearded dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland.) The colours are desaturated.
Characters dress simply, in boiler suits. We see very little daylight. Even the vain and flighty Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has to adapt to the austerity of her environment and forego her wigs and make-up.
Lawrence is again tremendous as Katniss. She gives her character an emotional depth that you don’t expect in a franchise movie, conveying her vulnerability and doubt as well as well as her fiery determination and Barbarella-like sex appeal.
Katniss is pining for Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow Hunger Games survivor who has fallen into Snow’s clutches and has seemingly been brainwashed or tortured into becoming a spokesperson for the Capitol.
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District 13’s steely president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) is fighting back against Snow, with Katniss as her chief propaganda weapon.
The brilliant and much lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman (who plays Plutarch Heavensbee) died earlier this year before production was complete on Mockingjay Part 2. Digital technology was being used to “complete” his performance but the joints barely show here. This isn’t one of his major roles but he gines a typically assured and witty performance as President Coin’s sly but kind-hearted chief advisor.
Along with casting Lawrence, one of the filmmakers’ best decisions at the outset of Hunger Games was to fill the series with redoubtable character actors like Hoffman, Moore, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci.
They bring a gravitas and wit to the project that counters the callow performances of some of the younger actors. The “Hunger Games” themselves (the vicious, reality TV style games contested by selected youngsters) aren’t being contested and these old-timers are therefore far more prominent in this episode.
Director Francis Lawrence isn’t afraid to include grim imagery of war. There are scenes here of blasted cityscapes full of skeletons and of wounded characters crammed together in makeshift hospitals.
What the series has never been able to resolve is how to combine its darker, dystopian elements with the demands of the teen action movie. Mockingjay - Part 1 is full of very jarring juxtapositions.
One moment, we’ll be confronted with scenery of death and devastation - and the next, there will be some cutesy slapstick involving Primrose Everdeen’s pet cat Buttercup. Stylistically, the film veers between gritty realism and Star Wars-like escapism.
Not a great deal happens here plot-wise. Most of the story is taken up with the rebel propaganda comapaign orchestrated by Plutarch, filmed on the battle line by the punkish-looking Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and fronted by Katniss. The rebels blow up a dam and make a raid on the Capitol. That’s about it. The film ends abruptly. You can’t help but wonder if it would have made more sense to release Mockingjay as a single feature rather than split it into two. Part 1 matches its predecessors in terms of performance and production values but still feels like half a movie.
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