Context is everything, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 opens in Israel just as we are once more reminded that war and violence are in our lives, whether we want it or not. This film goes darker and more somber than the preceding two films, which not only suits my mood, but goes a long way to resolving some issues I had with the first two films. I find myself recommending this film for some surprising reasons.
Background (feel free to skip down)
Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful YA science fiction trilogy: The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010) is the basis for the sci-fi adventure film series. Set in the Nation of Panem, composed of 12 Districts under the oppressive rule of the Capitol, the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur reverberates in the cruel edict that each district must send two tributes, a teenage boy and girl chosen by lottery, to compete in the Hunger Games. Unlike the myth, however, these youths do not fight a monster, they must fight one another to the death. These games are broadcast live, reality TV style, as a show of power and means of intimidation to forestall any rebellion against the Capitol.
Why Mockingjay Rocks
Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence – yes, but there’s more to it than that. The first two films in the series deliver everything one might want from the genre: action, suspense, evil incarnate in the form of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), moving self-sacrifice, romance, and a beautiful heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) dressed spectacularly by the intrepid Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), stylist to the tributes. Still, there’s no evading the fact that these films are about kids killing one another. In the context of The Hunger Games, this an activity that they go about rather casually and efficiently: it’s what you need to do to win, it’s what you need to do to stay alive. But, I suppose in traditional action film style, one does not pause to reflect on this horror.
Warning: Some Spoilers Inevitable
That is where Mockingjay deviates from the norm, and this darker film offers substance as well as suspense. Although set in a fictional dystopia, the treatment of a war that takes place as much in the media as on the battlefields, is chillingly relevant. Katniss, having survived the Quarter Quell, would make the perfect symbol of the rebellion, and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is all set to convince both Katniss and President Coin (Julianne Moore). The process of encouraging/promoting the rebellion through promotional videos starring Katniss, provides some material for reflecting on manipulated reality and its agents. The balance between President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee is interesting to observe in its ups and downs. While the severe Coin has a lot to learn from Heavensbee, as it turns out, there are some things that can’t quite be solved by spin.
Julianne Moore, in her rigid white-streaked coiffure and severe mode, is initially reminiscent of Meryl Streep’s performance in The Giver. Yet unlike Streep, who is merely creepy, in Moore’s portrayal, she’s not only a tough leader capable of making the hard choices, she’s also open to listening and learning. President Coin is actually kind of cool.
Not that I’m of the ‘women need to take on traditionally violent male roles’ school of feminism, but it is fun to have a film where there are some female characters that are tough fighter/survivors rather than weak victims. Jennifer Lawrence effortlessly evokes empathy and admiration for Katniss. Having enjoyed watch her kick ass for two films, it was good to see that Mockingjay also focuses on the incredible loss and the horrors of war. If Katniss was essentially just a kid thrown into a crazy set of circumstances in The Hunger Games, in this film she is a more mature character who has grown into her role and sees the big picture. Now it’s even more fun to root for her.
Speaking of fun, Elizabeth Banks makes this role. Effie Trinket shines wherever she goes. Donald Sutherland is a most worthy adversary, and deliciously evil. Watching Plutarch Heavensbee in the virtuoso verbal acrobatics of his emotional manipulation and schemes, I felt the loss of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose light went out all too soon.
Delivering action and suspense with a great sense of style all around (go Natalie Dormer), serious reflection on war and the media, and strong female leads – I really liked this movie much more than I would have expected.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
(US; 125 min, 2014, English with Hebrew subtitles)
Directed by Francis Lawrence; Screenplay: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins; Adaptation: Suzanne Collins; Cinematography: Jo Willems; Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa; Music, James Newton Howard; Supervising art director: Dan Webster; Art Directors: Andrew Max Cahn, Priscilla Elliott, Lauren Polizzi; Set Decorator, Larry Dias; Costume Designers: Kurt and Bart; Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Wes Chatham, Elden Henson, Paula Malcomson, Evan Ross.