By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Hunger Games (2012) made us hungry for more.
So did The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), which was more in more ways than one.
With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, we get the third of four movie installments (the first part of the two-part finale that emerges from the third book in the trilogy, headed our way in a year) in the science fiction franchise based on the futuristic dystopian fantasies of Young Adult novelist Suzanne Collins.
We’re in the rebellious District 13 section of Panem, what was once North America, where an oppressive totalitarian government rules, the cult of celebrity thrives, and war is on. (Thus, the to-the-death contests referenced in the title have been called off.)
Katniss Everdeen, played once again by Jennifer Lawrence, finds herself in the center of the rebellion against the Capitol, led by District 13’s president, Coin (Jennifer Lawrence,), hoping to organize and unite all the districts and overthrow President Snow (Donald Sutherland) under the guidance of Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated), who rescued Katniss from the Games.
“If we burn, you burn with us,” Katniss now finds herself threatening President Snow.
As the Mockingjay -– the “best-dressed rebel in history” — Katniss is to star in a series of propaganda videos and become the face of a revolution that asks of the downtrodden, “Join the fight. Join the Mockingjay.”
But the reality-TV bloodsport that dominated the series’ first two entries is behind them –- and us — now. And, truth be told, we miss it.
And although we might admire the integrity of a movie that looks appropriately drab and grey and that concentrates on military maneuvers instead of pageantry, this third outing offers less in the way of humor and color and imagery and design detail.
Among the returning supporting cast are Josh Hutcherson as joint victor and love interest Peeta Mellark, Liam Hemsworth as fellow soldier and other love interest Gale Hawthorne, Woody Harrelson as voice-of-experience mentor Haymitch Abernathy, Elizabeth Banks as costume advisor Effie Trinket, Jeffrey Wright as electronics expert Beetee Latier, and Stanley Tucci as TV host Caesar Flickerman.
Following in the commercially canny footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, the Hunger Games brain trust has cleaved the climactic final book into two distinct movies. So it’s no surprise that Part 1, despite its overall quality, is paced a bit too leisurely for its own good and falls short of the stay-alone power of either of the first two films.
Interrupting the narrative momentum and asking the audience to wait a year for the conclusion may make commercial sense, but it also undermines and dilutes the theatrical experience.
Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to his leading lady) remains in the director’s chair after delivering the last installment last year.
But instead of taking this third outing (which spends a lot more time indoors than the more action-oriented, outdoorsy first two did) in any kind of new direction, he gives it a by-the-numbers feel that brings it up a tad short of its predecessors, especially in the thrills department.
The screenplay, by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, from an adaptation by Collins, offers parallels to life as now lived that give the film a contemporary resonance, with an interesting exploration of the importance of media images during societal conflicts, but the script could -– and, let’s face it, should -– have been telescoped down into the first half of one movie rather than the first of two.
In Jennifer Lawrence, who is routinely but smashingly authentic, the franchise has a face -– just as the onscreen revolution does -– but she’s not showcased to the dramatic degree she was in the two previous entries.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 ends up registering as a respectable bridge, but a bridge to somewhere nonetheless. Think of it as a well-made appetite whetter for installment number four.
But for those seeking closure or satisfaction, look elsewhere, or hurry up and wait: it’s only a year.
So we’ll propagandize 3 stars out of 4 for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Despite the dubious doubling down of sequels, they’ve all been entertaining and thought-provoking and there’s another one in store.
In other words, although faithful fans will feel as if they’ve just seen half a movie, the odds remain in their favor.