One of the best SF series ever deepens its critique of the power of propaganda in ways complicated, intriguingly contradictory, and a little bit horrifying.
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the source material (and I love it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Don’t tell Hollywood I said this, but chopping the final novel of the Hunger Games trilogy into two films might be the best thing that could have happened to this franchise. I mean, it didn’t work for Harry Potter — the first Deathly Hallows film was terrible — and Peter Jackson is already two–thirds of the way (with the final third almost upon us) toward demonstrating that turning the brief Hobbit book into three long films was not artistically warranted. And it’s not even like the so-far enthralling Hunger Games films needed any help.
It’s just that this might be the best possible beginning of the ending that this particular story could have gotten.
The Games are done here. No more playing. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence: Serena, X-Men: Days of Future Past), reluctant heroine of District 12, has been snatched from the arena where impoverished teenagers play out a to-the-death bloodsport for the amusement of their cultural and political overlords of the decadent Capitol. In that arena, over the course of two years of her life and two iterations of the Games, she accidentally inspired a nation of downtrodden serfs in the future North American nation of Panem to begin to tentatively rise up. Now, she is among her rescuers, the people of the lone outright rebellious district, 13, the leaders of which hope to use her as a symbol to ignite all-out civil war.
The series has been, from the beginning, about the power of propaganda and the persuasive capabilities of media to tell a story that will sway hearts and minds even when the unvarnished truth might appall its audience. And with Mockingjay 1, the films continue on their astonishing track of being, if not actually better than, then at least more complimentary to the novels than maybe any movies-based-on-books have ever been. Because the books are told from Katniss’s first-person, present-tense perspective, which has its own intimate weight but which fails to offer us a larger view on Katniss’s world. Here, though, in the films, we are shown from outside her head how Katniss is used by others to further their own agendas, and the cultural impact of that in her world.
The extraordinary thing about Mockingjay 1 is that now, it’s not the rapacious Capitol and evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland: The Eagle, The Mechanic) who are offering up Katniss as a public inspiration… though they still have Peeta (Josh Hutcherson: Epic, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), Katniss’s District 12 teammate in the Hunger Games, captive, and are trotting him out in endless propaganda “interviews.” Instead Katniss is a tool of the freedom-fighting leaders of District 13, including President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore: Non-Stop, Carrie) and former Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Most Wanted Man, God’s Pocket), who has defected, bringing with him his extraordinary skill in creating “propos” (he was practically the Leni Riefenstahl of the Capitol). Katniss — and we — may agree with their aims of overthrowing the Capitol, but it is startling and a little bit horrifying to see how very moving propaganda can be.
A terrific sequence early in the film illustrates this, and also shows off Jennifer Lawrence as an entirely remarkable actor. We saw in the previous films how Katniss was pretty good at pretending to be something she was not (such as “hopelessly in love with Peeta”). Yet here we see how absolutely awful she is at trying to force herself to show emotion that she intellectually agrees with but isn’t feeling at the moment. She’s completely unconvincing shouting lines scripted for her by Heavensbee about freedom and rebellion in a studio setting… but once another Capitol defector, director Cressida (Natalie Dormer: The Riot Club, Game of Thrones) gets her out in the field to tour another District devastated by Capitol bombing and to visit with the wounded, Katniss’s ire is genuinely raised. There’s a lot of complicated and even intriguingly contradictory stuff going on here: the triumph of a young woman who cannot be managed yet soars when she gets to be herself raised a huge lump in my throat, while at the same time I was fully aware that her powerful rage was being turned into a product. And so she ends up managed and handled anyway.
The fact that none of this is simple or falls along clearcut lines of right and wrong, good and bad might be an inspiration for the teen and young-adult audience this is primarily aimed at to consider how media can manipulate, and might even increase their media literacy and skepticism a bit. (I can hope, anyway.)
Cutting Mockingjay the book into two films means we’re left with a sort of Empire Strikes Back feel to this one — that’s a good thing — complete with a devastating cliffhanger that doesn’t leave room for a lot of hope. Except, that is, the not-at-all unjustified hope that, next year, The Hunger Games will deliver a satisfying wrapup to what has so far been one of the smartest, most enthralling science-fiction films series ever.