Wednesday, December 03, 2014

If That Mockingjay Won't Sing...

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

The third film in the Hunger Games series suffers dramatically from being only half a movie. I mean that literally. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014, directed by Francis Lawrence) is all rising action without payoff, a function of the producers' decision to split the adaptation of the series' last book into two movies. This tactic may have enriched the makers of the Harry Potter movies and it will assuredly enrich the makers of these films, but it hobbles the penultimate film in the series. After a terrific second film, it's a hard comedown.

This installment finds Katniss recovering from the events of the anniversary games, having been plucked from the arena by a rebel community hidden in the wreckage of the destroyed District 13. Katniss is understandably traumatized by her experiences, so she's reluctant to act as the figurehead of the revolution. She only agrees on the condition that the remaining tributes held by President Snow be rescued and given a full pardon for their actions. Especially Peeta, who Snow is using as both a propaganda tool and as a means of striking at her personally. The rebellion's initial attempt to turn Katniss into a propaganda heroine are disastrous, as they place her into a hilariously inept CG environment in which she is completely wooden as an actress. It occurs to Plutarch Heavensbee that in order for Katniss to provide the kind of inspiration she instilled in the middle of the games, she must be reacting to something real. They send her into the field, first to see the remains of her own district (which has been completely cleansed of human life, and then one of the others where the Capitol has bombed the populace. President Alma Coin of District 13 sends a camera crew with her, and Gale, who escaped the destruction of District 12 with Katniss's family. In the field she's a natural, but now that she has been revealed to Snow, Snow retaliates. He sends bombers after the hospital Katniss visits a hospital in District 8, and after District 13 itself. Peeta cracks in his message to her and warns her of the impending attack. The citizens of District 13 spend a long night bunkered deep underground, though no real damage has been done. It's clear from the scattershot bombing that the Capitol has no idea of where District 13 has their resources or even what those resources are. Upon emerging, though, Katniss and Gale find the ground littered with white roses, the signature of President Snow. Meanwhile, the rebellion continues in the other districts, and when insurgents manage to blow up the dam that provides the Capitol with its energy, the opportunity to rescue the other tributes presents itself. Gale leads a commando team on the mission, but it soon becomes clear that the President Snow has laid a trap with poisoned bait...

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

Mockingjay Part 1 an action movie that's curiously short on action. There's a little--the bombing run in District 8, the rescue mission at the end--but neither of these is a set-piece action sequence on which to hang an action movie (the climactic rescue mission even leaves its heroine at home). The awkward position this occupies is mostly as set-up for the fireworks at the end, and as a result, this is the first of these movies that doesn't really function well on its own. I mean, sure, Catching Fire ended on a huge cliffhanger, but it was a cliffhanger that was earned after a thrilling action climax. This film, by contrast, ends on a serious downer, with Katniss in despair and things looking ever more bleak for our ragtag band of heroes. There's not really a character arc in this film. It ends on the same emotional landscape where it began. The major downside of this film's emotional monotony is that it robs Katniss of a good deal of her agency. She functions more as a point of view rather than as an active participant in the plot. Things happen to her rather than her doing things. The film is all exposition for a climax that won't come until next year. This is a major flaw. It makes for a movie that absolutely cannot stand on its own two feet. More than that, watching your heroine do nothing for two hours places a strain on one's engagement with the story.

Julianne Moore in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

Still, this remains the Tiffany series of young adult franchises and as a result, it has formidable resources, particularly in its choice of actors. The filmmakers are incredibly lucky in lead actress Jennifer Lawrence, whose range is breathtakingly broad. In this film, she's asked to play someone afflicted with PTSD while also channeling a fierce revolutionary spirit. Indeed, she's asked to play a bad actor, which most actors will tell you is not easy. She makes it look effortless. If the filmmakers have weakened her character somewhat in this movie--and I think they have--well, that's on them, not on Jennifer Lawrence. This is a female-centric film, with meaty roles for Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Natalie Dormer (as the propaganda director, Cressida), and Elizabeth Banks (returning as Effie Trinket, shorn of the gaudy costumes), in addition to an expanded role for Willow Shields as Katniss's sister, Prim. There's a political dimension to how this film codes its conflict, given that Snow is a patriarchal figure while the resistance is primarily woman-driven. This extends to the meta situation of the film's place in the Hollywood system itself, it should be noted, given that The Hunger Games movies as a whole stand as a complete repudiation of the notion that women can't open action films or support sci-fi/superhero franchises. Clearly, that conventional wisdom is not wisdom at all.

The returning male characters tend to be subordinates: Jeffery Wright's Beetee, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee, and Woody Harrelson's Haymitch all defer to President Coin, while Liam Hemsworth's Gale is a classic hero's girlfriend, reimagined. Josh Hutcherson's Peeta remains the other hero's girlfriend character, while getting himself damseled in the process. He's the princess in the tower waiting to be rescued. Hell, even the camera crew that follows Katniss all defer to Cressida. Only Donald Sutherland's Snow is an active male agent in the plot, and he's the film's villain. What I find remarkable about all of this is that this state of affairs is never really questioned in-film. It just is, and I haven't heard anyone grouse about how "unrealistic" it all is. This is the real value of these movies, even though I wish they took more artistic risks.

Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

Mockingjay Part 1 is very much the darkest of these films so far, and it begs the question of what makes this a film targeted at teens? This is a film with mass graves in it, and human experimentation, and fear conditioning, and the terror of bombs falling, and masses of wounded. This is a violent film that really stretches the boundaries of what the PG-13 rating allows (or shows up its sheer hypocrisy, given that even a hint of sex or a single F-bomb would likely tumble it over into an R-rating). The young adult novel has been dealing in darkness for a while now, and if I'm honest, I'll remember that my own favorite books when I was a kid tended to be grotesque. In the case of the contemporary young adult dystopias, though, I think there's a millennial unease (if you'll pardon the pun), a sense that the world is collapsing and its youth that will be stuck living in the ruins. I don't know that I can argue with that interpretation of the zeitgeist. It's probably true. The Hunger Games novels and their ilk are performing a classic function of science fiction by making movies about today couched in the imagery of the future. They're sly smugglers.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

I thought about writing a bit about the film's technical bona fides, but there's not really any point to that. This is a mega-budget blockbuster, so it has the resources to effectively realize whatever it can imagine. Whether its imagination is limited or not is a more vexing question. For the most part, it succeeds in creating a convincing backdrop against which its drama can unfold. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) orchestrates everything with an invisible hand. It's almost classical in its restraint, even when it turns into a horror movie during the rescue mission at the end. When it does indulge in pure style--the landscape that's been bombed with white roses, for instance--it's not enough to break the spell. There are small things that mark the film distinctively, though, even beyond its generic sci fi trappings: Effie Trinket's fashion crisis is one. The buck that Katniss and Gale refuse to shoot is another. The meta critique of Jennifer Lawrence as a construction of the media is well-taken and slyly elided in the subtext. Perhaps the film's best gesture is Katniss singing "The Hanging Tree." Lawrence is allegedly an untrained singer, but on the evidence, she's capable. It's a haunting scene.

In all, Mockingjay Part 1 isn't enough of what it promises, but it's enough to prime the pump for the series' conclusion next year. In an ideal world, there will be an edition of the last two movies that manages to stitch them together somehow into an integrated whole. For the present, though, it will have to do as is.

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ClassicBecky said...

I absolutely HATE this new money-making deal of cutting books in two to make 2 movies and more money. It wasn't necessary with Harry Potter, and it isn't here. I haven't seen Mockingjay yet, and yes, I will be a chump and pay twice to see the second one -- loved your review.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Becky. I know, right? I see that the Divergent series is going to do the same thing. Not a fan of this practice, especially given that Mockingjay has been visibly harmed by it.