All words: Rachel Kurzius
In the opening scenes of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up her sister Prim (Willow Shields) from a nightmare about being chosen as a Tribute for the annual nationwide child-killing ritual-meets-reality show. She comforts her sister, while their grief-stricken mother (Paula Malcolmson) looks like she doesn’t see the world in front of her. In the beginning of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss wakes up from a nightmare about being a Tribute in those Hunger Games and resembles her mother in her haunted visage. Even the Justice Building where Katniss stands in front of her district as a Hunger Games tribute has been bombed into rubble.
Katniss’ actions at the end of the second film in this “four-part trilogy” mean that the dystopian nation of Panem is undergoing a revolution. Katniss wakes up in District 13, which common knowledge says was destroyed in the last rebellion. Turns out they just went underground, literally. While living in a giant parking lot that looks like a dildo, the denizens of District 13 have been producing weapons in hopes that the other districts would start feeling discontented enough to fight back.
The first two movies, adapted from the young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, had developed a rhythm: you get acquainted with District 12, Katniss’ district, before she goes to the Capital to prepare for the Hunger Games. Then, the meat of the film is the games themselves: the bloodshed, the ethical quandaries, and the mind games. Much like the final Harry Potter book doesn’t get to Hogwarts until the final battle sequence, Mockingjay Part 1 eschews the formula. It’s tough to tell when it’s going to wrap up.
Like the other films, this one is keenly interested in the aesthetics of control. How do you make people feel comfortable as you afflict them? The games themselves were of huge propaganda value. They taught the people of the twelve districts that to win, they had to kill one another. The rulers of District 13 know that Katniss has great propaganda value to the revolution. When she goes into battle, most of her comrades are armed with cameras, rather than guns. In a way that DC politicians try to ape, Katniss inspires people with her selfless actions and, mainly, her simple decency in the face of the descending heel of injustice.
The best example of Katniss’ power to open peoples’ eyes to the oppressiveness of the Capital is Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who in the past represented the utter decadence of the leadership. She used to wear ridiculously flamboyant outfits to District 12 when choosing the Tributes, saying banalities like, “May the odds be ever in your favor” as she sends teens to kill each other. Seeing the Capital’s double-dealings with Katniss made her realize the shallow depths of their mercy. Banks does a great job honoring Effie’s role as comic relief while imbuing her with humanity.
The Capital, as represented by mustache-twirling President Snow (Donald Sutherland, playing the evil white leader he has spent decades perfecting), is as repugnant as ever. But Mockingjay Part 1 doesn’t blanch in showing some of the concerns Katniss has about the leaders of the rebellion: President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, in a restrained performance leaving me curious for the sequel) and the designer of the previous Hunger Games (Philip Seymour Hoffman, showing the humanity he’s famous for). Who exactly are these people? Why should Katniss trust them any more than Snow?
These questions are often posed by Katniss’ partner in the Hunger Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is being held in the Capital. He has the same propaganda value for Snow as Katniss does for District 13. Most heartbreaking is that in his missives to Panem, begging them to put down their weapons, he voices the same doubts that eat away at Katniss. The citizens of District 13 deem him a traitor for it.
The Hunger Games trilogy has always been a “choose your own political metaphor” kind of deal. It could be making fun of reality TV, or pointing out the unfairness of NCAA athletes, or a parable about the Syrian revolution. The themes remain broad enough that people can apply their own ideologies to Mockingjay.
Unfortunately, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 follows in the grand tradition of movie studios being greedy. By splitting the final book into two films, the movie lacks the same climaxes that the other movies boasted. Still, it gleans dramatic tension from its questioning of the ethics of revolution.
All of these movies have been elevated beyond pulp by the performance of Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss could have been a leaden, two-dimensional character and the Hunger Games still would have broken box office records. With Lawrence as star, though, the films become something that plumbs the depths of responsibility , whether it’s to one’s family, to one’s country, to one’s own desires.
In one fascinating scene, the District 13-ers are trying to formulate a great propaganda video for Katniss. They ruminate over her more moving moments, musing about her volunteering as Tribute to save her sister or befriending the young Rue in the first games. It’s a wink to the audience. Remember when Katniss made you tear up before? Well, she’s about to motivate you again. If not to start a revolution, at least to get you to buy a movie ticket.