“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 2:05, three stars out of four.
Katniss Everdeen gets to shoot exactly one arrow during “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” (although she makes it count). While “Catching Fire” essentially took the template of the first “Hunger Games” movie and made it bigger, bolder and more complex, “Mockingjay” daringly abandons the format for something bleaker and less triumphant. This is the “Empire Strikes Back” of the series, with the heroes constantly on defense — running, hiding, planning, hoping.
It’s all buildup for “Mockingjay — Part 2”, so it really does feel like I’m reviewing half a movie. Director Francis Lawrence and a talented cast do an admirable job creating the tension that will need to be broken in next year’s finale, but it feels like an installment in a serial, not a complete movie.
If you’re a little hazy on the events of “Catching Fire,” you might want to brush up first — it’s on Netflix. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from the Games by the rebels at the end of the last film, but her close friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was left behind and captured by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his jackbooted Capitol forces.
As “Mockingjay” opens, with Katniss deep inside the rebel bunker in District 13 (not to be confused with Mystery Science Theater’s Deep 13), we learn that her act of defiance in the Games has sparked rebellion in the other Districts, and an even more brutal crackdown by Snow. Rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore) and advisor Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want to make a symbol out of Katniss — the Mockingjay — that will unite the rebelling provinces into an army.
This is the central irony of the film — just as the Capitol tried to mold Katniss into a made-for-television hero in the first two movies, now the rebels are trying to do the same thing for their side, with propaganda clips, hammy scripts, even a new Mockingjay outfit for Katniss to wear. The one thing I’ve never figured out about the “Hunger Games” series is whether this focus on image and celebrity is meant to be social satire for Suzanne Collins, or simply an acknowledgement that this is how things are.
Katniss is uneasy at the prospect of becoming a symbol, and the arc of “Mockingjay” is more of an internal one as she learns to accept her role (and her powerful position) within the rebels. Snow is busy making countermoves too — he’s putting an apparently brainwashed Peeta on the air to denounce Katniss and the rebels. The battle for image is a strong undercurrent to the film — at one point we see competing propaganda clips literally fighting for control of the airwaves. It’s like “1984” as imagined by a gubernatorial campaign strategist.
In contrast to the lush forests and gaudy palaces of the first two films, the color palette of “Mockingjay” is in despairing browns and grays — the dank subterranean hideous of the rebels, the battle-damaged Districts with bombed-out buildings and bones littered underfoot.
There are a few glimmers of humor here and there, largely from Elizabeth Banks as fashionista turned reluctant rebel Ellie Trinket (trapped in a “land of jumpsuits”) and Woody Harrelson as the debauched ex-Victor. And the film is dedicated to the late Hoffman, of course, who brings a twinkly canniness to the political mastermind Plutarch.
“Mockingjay — Part 1” does what it’s supposed to do, setting the dramatic stakes for the finale while also being a fairly sobering look at the real costs of war for both the masterminds and the innocent. Which is probably not anybody’s idea of a holiday blockbuster, but then, neither was a movie about a dystopian future where kids killed other kids on television.