The games are over. Now, the real war against The Capitol begins!

It’s the beginning of the end for The Hunger Games, the latest young adult literary sensation to take the world by storm, inspiring scads of knock-offs, and a hysterical degree of tie-in merchandise that reminds us all of how much the filmmakers are missing the point of their own franchise. At the very least though, unlike the previous big screen YA scourge of The Twilight SagaThe Hunger Games, as both a trilogy of novels and a movie franchise, is at least genuinely good. Its premise has been done before, but its themes are smart, its characters are engaging, and its world effectively balances a feeling of being both real and surreal.

Thankfully, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 maintains this high level of quality. It also nicely elevates the stakes with a more raw, sobering take on the war for Panem, rife with intense war action and plenty of chilling, morbid imagery. The previous two movies, great as they were, seem almost juvenile in comparison now, as our heroine, Katniss Everdeen must suddenly immerse herself in a war she never asked for, as the figurehead of a rebellion she’s forced to lead by circumstance, not choice.

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The only downfall of what’s otherwise a great final chapter then is that it’s an especially evident ‘half-movie’. It’s inherently incomplete, and this criticism is no doubt inevitable. The movie forces itself to peter out on a weak non-climax so that the big final battle against The Capitol can be saved for the final movie next year, simply ‘stopping’ at that point in the story, rather than actually properly ending, which was a flaw shared with last year’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. There may be enough story material to justify two movies in this case, but as much as the splitting point seems logical on paper, this first half of Mockingjay suffers for it, since having to come back next year to see the payoff of a movie that’s all about setup is inherently and understandably frustrating.

At the very least though, the setup is both powerful and promising, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 certainly begins the movie franchise’s finale on just about all of the right notes!

CHARACTERS

Many of the personalities should be familiar to audiences after the first two movies, with the new additions of District 13 thrown in to mix things up a bit. Chief among them is Julianne Moore in the all-new role of District 13 president, Alma Coin, the voice of duty and sacrifice in the coercion to make Katniss stand as the symbol of the rebellion. Fans of the novel may feel annoyed at Coin’s portrayal here, since Julianne Moore plays the character to be a little less ruthless, and she’s had much of her backstory left on the cutting room floor for want of pacing. Her presence still helps to illustrate the fact that the rebellion has its own shades of grey however, just as The Capitol does.

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On that note, Katniss may be a familiar face, but like the other returning characters, she feels and acts noticeably differently, now that the Games have been destroyed. Katniss is suddenly very much out of her depth, much more than she’s ever been before, after being pushed to be the hero that Panem thinks she is. Katniss isn’t a selfless do-gooder by any stretch either. She struggles to find her place in the battle, and Jennifer Lawrence continues to play excellently to the fact that Katniss is not just some generic ‘chosen one’ protagonist. Her acts of defiance have gotten her somewhere unprecedented, and this movie is all about Katniss exploring the consequences of upsetting Panem’s world order, regardless of her reasons.

As the movie states, Katniss becomes the ‘weapon’ of District 13, as they call the other Districts to arms, just as the captured Peeta, who appears to have taken up against the rebellion, serves as the ‘weapon’ of The Capitol. As much as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 certainly doesn’t skimp on its sequences of brutal war violence, pushing the PG-13 rating as much as it can, it also mostly stands as a ‘cold war’ so far. An interesting dimension of the movie is how the war is fought with words even more than weapons at this point, with District 13 and The Capitol sparring with propaganda and politics throughout the lead-in to all-out war. It’s a smarter, more grounded take on the kind of blockbuster warfare that these big triple-A movie productions often depict.

The action and atmosphere may be quite sharp, but it’s really the dialogue that elevates The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. The gestures and words shared between President Snow, District 13 and all other parties consistently do a great job of creating an atmosphere of general unrest and introspection. The entire franchise has been building up to this war, but is it truly the right thing to do? After all, President Snow doesn’t see himself as a villain, no more than Katniss sees herself as a hero. Snow is doing what he thinks is necessary to maintain stability, even if Donald Sutherland’s more gritted performance this time does do a nice job of showing the increasing desperation of Snow’s character.

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In fact, almost every character in the movie beyond Katniss and Snow just feels like a voice in the background. Katniss is pulled in certain directions while Snow is being pushed. Everything seems to center around the cause and effect of both of their actions. Even Peeta is just another pawn in a much larger game, just like Katniss, and just like the other characters playing their part, now that the wheels are in motion.

To a point then, there’s not much I can truly go into with each character, at least not without extensive spoilers to those who have not already read the novel. The many character examinations and wave of stances on the coming war are far too plentiful for just one review, as the franchise takes one last look at where everyone stands before the final battle. Thus, this movie is really about laying the groundwork for the next in every possible sense, with the cast being great as ever, albeit also contributing to a disappointing aftertaste of unfulfilled resolution and incompleteness.

PLOT

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 has a beginning, middle… and that’s it. Again, this is inevitable, but it bears repeating that the movie is hampered by needing to be split in half, especially when we still have to wait an additional year for the proper finale.

Fortunately, the material that is here does a good job of uprooting franchise convention, and dropping us into a conflict as shocking and potentially confusing to the audience as it is for Katniss. The good and the bad is less apparent, and the only thing that is apparent is that the struggle for Panem’s freedom is claiming many lives on both sides.

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On the one hand, it’s excellent to see some cool sequences of just how the Districts are trying to even the odds against The Capitol. The action hits a lot harder this time, and it really feels like audiences have suddenly been thrust into a very real, deadly battle that is spanning an entire world. Everything feels different than it did in the Games, feeling like it has more stakes, even though the Games were still about people killing each other. Those Games were the cost of stability, and now that they’re gone, everything is beginning to unravel, for better or for worse.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 thus may not feel like a complete, fully-realized story, but it at least succeeds as a showcase of fallout, consequences, and more brutality to come. The movie seems to get more intense and urgent with every minute, as the stakes of the war for Panem are beautifully realized throughout, sometimes with imagery that’s undeniably hard to watch, particularly as Katniss must trudge through the ruins of her former home in District 12, which was bombed to ashes at the conclusion of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire last year.

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Viewers must be aware that the big battle they’ve been waiting for is still a year away, but at least this movie will have them anticipating said battle like never before!

Spoiler
For curious fans of the novel that are wondering how the movie splits itself, it concludes immediately after Peeta and the other surviving tributes are rescued from The Capitol, and brought back to District 13. Predictably, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 entirely revolves around the lead-in to the big final battle, while next year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 will showcase said battle, as District 13 ends the movie with the declaration that they are ready to make their final push against The Capitol.

While we see the effects of Peeta’s brainwashing, as he brutally attacks Katniss, and is left to thrash about in confinement right as the credits roll, it remains disappointing that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 doesn’t have a proper climax. The movie fails to address one of the key criticisms of the novel, where the rescue of the tributes is not detailed, which is a massive missed opportunity for the movie to not only fix a problematic element of the book, but also to have a proper and more fulfilling climax.

Regardless, the stage is set, and the movie wastes no time signaling that the end is near for The Capitol by its conclusion. It’s just unfortunate that after so much well-realized war sequences and action, the movie goes out with a whimper instead of a bang.

DIRECTION

Francis Lawrence returns to the director’s chair after helming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire last year, and he’s wasted no time upping the ante with a more impactful, daring sequel. Some may argue that the imagery is occasionally hit a little too hard for people who may have younger children with them (even if the franchise is mainly meant for teens and up), and it can be a little jarring to see how much these movies have changed in tone from last year to this year.

Nonetheless, Lawrence has created even more incredible spectacle and production value than he did with last year’s movie. Again, it’s difficult to talk much about without some big spoilers, but rest assured that the movie leaps off of the screen, even if the novel’s best events are still yet to come for the movie franchise.  Equally commendable is how well he portrays the politics behind the war, and doesn’t fall into the trap of focusing too much on the battle itself, at least not in this first part.

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The movie sometimes barely feels like it belongs in the same series, but with the Games now out of the picture, audiences are left to wake up alongside Katniss, and see the reality of the conflict they’ve been cheering for up to this point. Lawrence doesn’t pull any punches, and expertly displays that war is not won without sacrifice, nor with much in the way of objective right answers.

MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK

The soundtrack in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 has become much more reverent and atmospheric, creating a movie that feels more haunting and less outwardly escapist than its predecessors. The social commentary is much more on the nose now, and the music score reflects that with increased attention given to building emotion, rather than intrigue. After all, the gloves are off, and the cards are officially laid bare on both sides now.

The deafening sound of theatre-shaking combat and warfare is also a force to be reckoned with, excellently bringing audiences into the battle. In fact, it’s a bit astonishing (and disappointing) that, for whatever reason, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 was denied an IMAX cut, despite the first two movies being available for IMAX screens, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire even being partially filmed with IMAX cameras.

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Nonetheless, even with audiences being limited to standard digital screenings, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 packs no shortage of punch, both sensory and emotional.

VISUAL EFFECTS

The movie’s colour palette has entirely resigned itself to blacks, greys and browns for the most part, with the vibrant, colourful landscapes of The Capitol never being shown, and The Capitol itself barely being outwardly featured. A huge part of the movie takes place in the dreary underground corridors of District 13, with yet more showing the downtrodden and grimy fellow Districts, as The Capitol squeezes their grip more tightly upon all of them.

Despite the more drab, dull visual palette however, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 still realizes the novel with exceptional visual aplomb. Even if the big final battle hasn’t yet properly started, there are some fantastic moments of spectacle and destruction here, with the war seeming more gritty and real than it ever has before. The flame-scarred, rubble-choked landscapes of Panem appear to be becoming the norm, showcasing that there’s nothing glossy or glamourous about the war that has now begun.

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Fortunately, there isn’t a visual beat that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 makes that isn’t done exceptionally. It would go into spoilers if I explained in finer detail yet again, but the imposing scale of the franchise has never been larger than it has here, with this movie containing many of the coolest sequences that the big screen adaptations have realized yet!

THE VERDICT

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is a personal best for the franchise, even if it’s limited by having to currently exist without its necessary second half. Because of this inevitable flaw, the movie falls a tad shy of the entertainment value behind other great movies this month such as Big Hero 6 or Interstellar, but taken as a lead-in to the franchise conclusion, it’s a very well-realized penultimate installment.

The movie will do a great job of getting fans amped for the proper finale, but as with the two-part Harry Potter finale in particular, this first part is all setup, and no payoff. The best parts of the source novel haven’t yet happened either, making The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 sometimes feel like too much of a mere appetizer, despite all of the many things it does very well.

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In fact, it pains me to say, but as great as this movie is, it’s the least essential to watch on the big screen for non-fans. If you are a fan of the series, then chances are, you’ve already seen this movie, and are just reading this review out of curiosity, barring some unforeseen incident that has prevented you from going right away. If you’re a more casual viewer of these movies, and you only have so much money to throw at the many great movies coming out for the Fall and Holiday season during 2014 though, you may want to wait to watch this at home later on if you could care less. The movie is clearly saving its best moments for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 next year, and as much as the sequences of early warfare are cool to experience in theatres, they don’t lead to any actual resolution in this first part. Thus, if you’re not so much a dedicated fan of The Hunger Games, you could be forgiven for just skipping this movie for now, and waiting another year to watch it back-to-back with the finale, for a better and more complete experience.

If you’re actively interested though, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 delivers. It’s a great lead-in to the final battle, even if that’s ultimately all it amounts to, and it finally brings the real war to Katniss’s doorstep. The Games may be gone now, but the franchise has only gotten more mature and impactful without them!

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Review
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 suffers from being blatantly incomplete, but still marks a franchise best, sparking the inevitable war for Panem, and presenting a darker and more chilling experience than ever before!
CHARACTERS85%
PLOT80%
DIRECTION90%
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK85%
VISUAL EFFECTS75%
THE GOOD STUFF
  • Darker, stronger story
  • Complex, engaging cast
  • Sharp, powerful early warfare
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
  • Complete lack of resolution
  • Climax feels weak and half-hearted
83%Overall Score
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)
86%

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