'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1' review: An underwhelming stopgap sequel
"Mockingjay - Part 1" (opening in theaters Nov. 21) is a placeholder sequel that ultimately fails in its every effort as the first-half of a penultimate chapter of a sprawling story. Instead of creating an exciting energy for the "Hunger Games" ultimate conclusion, this generally plodding flick mosies around before stumbling to a clunky "cliffhanger" stopping point.
In short: After effectively dismantling the Hunger Games in "Catching Fire," Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in District 13 - where insurgent leaders (Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman) urge Katniss to become the poster girl for a rebellion against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Meanwhile, her District 12 ally Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) remains a captive of the Snow's government. (Watch the trailer)
The fact this movie exists is pretty confusing -- there simply are not enough plot points in "Mockingjay - Part 1" or compelling set-up for the grand finale to justify this underwhelming penultimate sequel. It mistakes its good fortune of following-up a rather solid "Catching Fire" cliff-hanger and leading into the final "Hunger Games" movie as enough -- but this movie aimlessly
Usually, declaring a movie is "slow" or "lacking in much action" can be brushed off as subjective criticism -- however, there is one key piece of tangible evidence: this is the first "Hunger Games" movie not released in IMAX. The first two "Hunger Games" movies featured massive and exciting sequences and vistas worthy of the big-screen treatment and the IMAX format -- this is not the case for "Mockingjay - Part 1." When the producers opted to forgo the IMAX treatment for "Mockingjay - Part 1," they made a tacit admission this sequel lacks the action of its predecessors.
For a franchise defined by massive action sequences in the first two films, Katniss is involved in one major action sequence this time around. In the third act, she is relegated to watching an action sequence on TV screens. And even that specific sequence - which is initially intense and effective - ends up poorly executed, abrupt and rife with odd storytelling choices. Movies are a visual medium - yet, many of the most jarring plot elements of "Mockingjay" occur off-screen. This movie squanders the cinematic opportunity to showcase a massive and bombastic raid -- opting instead to focus on the targets hiding in their shelters, who suffer little more than some flickering lights and a little dust that falls from the ceiling.
The lack of action in a "Hunger Games" movie could be forgivable if the personal dramatic narrative and conflict made up the difference. "Mockingjay - Part 1" is clearly a more personal, smaller story -- and a decidedly more political narrative focused on Katniss's role as a propaganda tool. While these elements sound intriguing, their execution is - well - boring. Whole sections of "Mockingjay - Part 1" is essentially a movie about rebels making propaganda movies -- but in a tedious manner and in a manner without any satirical or insightful edge. Several new characters are introduced, but they have minimal dramatic impact on the story - at least in this somewhat dull "Part 1."
The strength of the latest "Hunger Games" movie continues to be its star. Jennifer Lawrence remains the best actor in any tentpole franchise blockbuster movie - surpassing even Robert Downey Jr. ("Iron Man") or Hugh Jackman ("The Wolverine"). Her performance cements Katniss as one of the great blockbuster acting performances of all time - even in this lackluster movie. She sincerely embodies the reluctant face of a revolution she never wanted to incite or join -- a strong warrior who is happiest in her quiet moments with her family, while worrying about Peeta from afar.
"Mockingjay - Part 1" is a fine or okay movie -- but it's difficult to consider this poorly-executed movie great or even good when it fails to build-up excitement for "Part 2," effectively only bogging down the franchise's momentum.
Maybe by the time "Part 2" finally hits theaters a year from now, audiences will forget how unnecessary and joyless "Part 1" was to endure.
Final verdict: When it comes to final book chapters split into two films, "Mockingjay - Part 1" has more in common with "Breaking Dawn - Part 1" than say, a good next-to-last sequel like "The Deathly Hollows: Part 1." This obvious cash grab of a failed set-up movie has flashes of great world-building and character-focused drama, however, it is too often tedious, bloated and drawn-out. It's ultimate failure, however, is leaving the "Hunger Games" franchise with lackluster lead-up to its grand finale.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" opens in movie theaters nationwide Nov. 21 and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material.