Critics haven't taken to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 with the same enthusiasm expressed for the first two films in the series. That's a shame, because Mockingjay Part 1 is the most interesting chapter in the franchise.
Where the first two movies were intelligent adaptations of Suzanne Collin's Young Adult sci-fi novels and solid, smarter-than-average action flicks, Mockingjay Part 1 is a riskier, more cerebral property. It's a mature entry that plays closer to a grown-up war drama than its predecessors, and has far more intelligent things to say as a result.
Building a better war movie
In Mockingjay Part 1, hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, as ever, elevating the material) finds herself recovering from her double "tours" in the Hunger Games — a brutal ritual wherein young people fight one another to the death. Rocked to her core and no doubt suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, she is enlisted by a rebel faction to fight for — and serve as the symbol of — the revolution to restore freedom to every district.
While there are lighter moments, much of the film is serious, gripping and tense as any war drama. Every time Katniss and crew go into battle, there's a very real sense of danger, and I never knew if everyone would make it out alive. One memorable sequence, wherein the revolutionaries' complex is under siege, moves with the awful tension and weight of a World War II era submarine film. I forgot, at many points, that I was watching Young Adult dystopian fiction, and I rallied for Katniss at every turn of the plot.
A reluctant symbol of hope for the oppressed people of the districts, Katniss has a camera crew follow her around as she fights for the cause. She wages war via propaganda as much as she fights the literal enemy with her signature bow and arrow. And just as she is on the airwaves, seeking to inspire the people to unite and take a stand, her friend (maybe more than friend) Peeta is kidnapped by the corrupt Capitol and forced to parrot its messages on "official channels."
Hearts and minds
In setting up the story in this way, Mockingjay Part 1 acknowledges that wars — even the most just and righteous wars — are fraught with complications. And they're never simply fought on the battlefield. Each side boasts propaganda that is manufactured. The grisly truth is that that people will suffer and die, in large numbers, until the conflict is resolved.
even fighting for the "right" side takes its toll.
Mockingjay Part 1 is appropriately dark, refusing to shy away from such inconvenient truths. Posing Peeta and Katniss against one another (on the airwaves at least) and putting the appropriate focus on the messaging and packaging of war highlights this. The film does a wonderful job showing just how damaged each individual actually is, since they are both used as puppets by the opposing sides.
Peeta, probably under coercion, speaks angrily into the camera, urging Katniss to stop fighting and hence stop the bloody conflict in broadcasts that reach across the country. Katniss, for her part, stars in videos where she visits the destroyed rubble of district 12, with an impassioned plea for the people to rise up and fight the tyranny that leveled her home. She speaks the truth, but she's presented in a controlled manner — this is propaganda, after all.
The rebel side is shown as being infinitely more just; its leader, President Alma Coin is cool, but competent and fair, while President Snow of the Capitol is obviously a treacherous asshole. But even fighting for the "right" side takes its toll.
Katniss suffers for her position. She's crushed when Capitol forces deliberately target a makeshift hospital she just visited to rally injured fighters, and the obvious torture Peeta has endured weighs on her. War is dirty, terrible business, no matter what side you're on.
This nuance is something sorely lacking in many games that purport to be about violent conflict (This War of Mine and Valiant Hearts: The Great War are notable recent exceptions). But any story about war (in games and any other kind of fiction) would do well to at least nod to these ideas — the dehumanizing effects of propaganda, the complications of any conflict, the suffering that necessarily follows when humans fight and kill one another en masse.
Katniss is one of the strongest and best young women characters in recent cinematic history.
One of the best things about The Hunger Games as a series, and Mockingjay Part 1 in particular, is the presence of strong, competent women characters in heroic roles. Katniss is one of the strongest and best young women characters in recent cinematic history. She's a talented warrior, yes, but importantly, she has an ironclad moral compass and compassion for others, and she is capable of incredible acts of heroism.
Without a second thought, she volunteers to go out to the battlefield, despite her rattled nerves. She does her best to comfort injured soldiers and speak clearly and confidently in her videos. Katniss is no actor, but she's game to help the cause however she can.
She has a sense of humor as well. She doesn't get to exercise it much, but in one sequence, she hilariously demands that Coin let her young sister keep a typically-forbidden pet hanging around.
While Katniss is the kind of soldier I'd follow into battle, President Coin is the kind of leader I would vote for. She may lack charisma, but she more than makes up for it in sheer competence, resolve and dedication to her people. Like Katniss, she's suffered unbearable losses and persevered. She's a woman with power that wields it decisively and gracefully.
If you've seen many war movies, you know that the percentage that feature women in heroic roles are few and far between. That there are several in one film is something to celebrate, since representation matters.
Less action, more satisfaction
Mockingjay Part 1 is less popular than its predecessors because it's a deliberate move away from action towards a more cerebral, darker kind of war movie. But that's precisely what makes it so good. All of the political undertones and hints at a deeper, more mature narrative that peppered The Hunger Games and Catching Fire have finally coalesced into something with a backbone.
It's a smart approach that signals the series' growing maturity. The Hunger Games film franchise has grown into something smarter and better than just a good YA-action adaptation. With Mockingjay Part 1, it's evolved into the rarest of breeds: a series that can carry sober and frightening messages about violence, gracefully and even beautifully.